State health officials on alert for new bird flu

Dr. Sarah Park
Dr. Sarah Park
Dr. Chris Whelen
Dr. Chris Whelen

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Seven people in China have died from the new form of bird flu known as H7N9. State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said there's no reason to panic but Hawaii is on "alert mode."

"A lot of us in public health, not just here in the state of Hawaii but on the mainland as well as around the world, we're all leaning forward and paying close attention and preparing," she said.

So far, confirmed cases are confined to Shanghai and other parts of eastern China.

Monday morning, the Centers for Disease Control talked to the Hawaii State Laboratory and public health labs around the nation about testing people for the strain.

"They wanted to assure us that the testing algorithm would be sufficient to detect not only our seasonal circulating strains of influenza, but would also give us a preliminary indication if there was a novel strain out there," lab director Dr. Chris Whelen said.

Hawaii is protected by a disease surveillance system that monitors incoming international travelers. Flight crews report sick passengers. Swabs are taken and tested.

"Before we even get confirmation, we're taking precautions," Park said.

Whelen said the state lab would look for genetic markers found in Type A influenza, either the H2N1 sub-type or the H3N2 sub-type.

"The way that we do that sub-typing would indicate that we had a novel strain, if one of those markers didn't come up," he said.

A sick person would be quarantined.

Hawaii gets three flights a week from Shanghai. More than 140,000 Chinese are forecast to visit Hawaii this year.

"We have a lot of our own residents both from here in Hawaii and the mainland who are traveling quite frequently back and forth to China," Park said.

"The good news is there has been no reported person-to-person transmission," Whelen said. "So the virus is not efficient in the human host."

The alarming news is that H7N9 has killed several people, so the state isn't taking any chances.

Copyright 2013 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved