The Pandora Report 12.6.13

Highlights this week include the second case of H7N9 in Hong Kong, WHO ramping up calls for increased surveillance for MERS, EEE in Vermont, why that one friend never gets sick, and the Philippines ramping up its biosecurity. Happy Friday!

Hong Kong sees second case of H7N9 bird flu in a week

Hong Kong has seen its second case of H7N9 in the last week. An 80-year old man with diabetes sought medical attention after experiencing minor heart failure, and within a couple days of hospitalization developed symptoms consistent with the flu virus strain. He has subsequently been isolated for further treatment – it remains unclear if he came into contact with poultry prior to his hospitalization. However, don’t freak out yet –  the two cases are consistent with expected resurgent flu numbers following the onset of winter. According to all literature and available case evidence,  the virus still cannot effectively transmit person-to-person.

South China Morning Post – “It was unclear whether the man had come into contact with birds and live poultry and which district in Shenzhen he lived in. The three family members coming with him to the city had been back in Shenzhen and the city had contacted the Shenzhen health authority for subsequent medical monitoring…Border checks have been stepped up after the first confirmed case, and three people, who stayed in the same ward as the helper but had had no symptoms, are being isolated at the Lady MacLehose Holiday Village in Sai Kung.”

WHO calls for action on Mers following death in Abu Dhabi

Earlier this week, a Jordanian woman infected with MERS died from the virus shortly after giving birth to her second child. Her eight-year old son and husband are both also infected, and are still under surveillance in Jordan. It is unclear if the newborn is also infected with the  virus. None of the family had any travel history, any prior contact with animals, or any contact with infected persons, further confounding public health officials trying to determine the virus’ vector. In response to the mother’s death, the WHO has strongly encouraged countries to ramp up their surveillance and monitoring efforts. To date, there have been 163 cases of the virus worldwide, with a case fatality rate of approximately 42% causing 70 deaths.

The National – “More must be done to stop the spread of the deadly Mers coronavirus, the World Health Organisation has warned. Countries must strengthen their surveillance, increase awareness and try to find out how people are infected, the WHO’s emergency committee said on Wednesday…But Mers-CoV is not yet considered an international public health emergency. ‘After discussion and deliberation on the information provided, the committee concluded that it saw no reason to change its previous advice to the director general,’ the WHO said. The 15-member committee, which includes the deputy health minister of Saudi Arabia, Ziad Memish, said the situation continued to be of concern, in view of new cases and of information about the presence of the virus in camels in Qatar last month. It called for more support for countries that are particularly vulnerable, such as Saudi Arabia – where most of the cases have been confirmed – and urged for more studies to investigate exactly how people become infected with Mers-CoV.”

Vt. testing deer samples to test for EEE virus

Biologists in Vermont have begun testing over 700 blood samples collected from local moose and deer in order to track the spread of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). The virus was first introduced to Vermont in 2011, following the importation of an emu flock. EEE is a zoonotic alphavirus virus which primarily affects horses. The virus’ natural reservoir is wading birds, and it is spread, like so many horrible diseases, by mosquitoes. Although in the US there are usually less than 15 human cases of EEE, the virus’ fatality rate can approach 60%. As an encephalitic virus, symptoms are typically nasty – first fever, splitting headaches, photophobia (aversion to light),  then irritability, coma, and death. Among those lucky enough to survive, the virus often causes permanent sequelae, including severe brain damage.

Seattle PI – “Biologists say that mapping where the virus is found will help broaden the state’s understanding of the spread of the virus — which killed two people in Vermont in 2012 and two horses this year. EEE antibodies detected in deer and moose have been found in every Vermont country. Biologists hope that by looking for antibodies in the deer and moose, they’ll be able to determine if infected animals are more commonly found near certain bodies of water or wetlands.”

A genetic defect protects mice from infection with Influenza viruses

Everyone has that one friend/relative/colleague who not only never gets sick, but also thinks the best time to discuss their fabulous immune system is when you’re knee deep in tissues and throat lozenges. It turns out there may be a genetic reason for their immunological smugness. According to a new study from researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig, mice who possess a mutation in the gene which encodes for the Tmprss2 protease (a catalytic enzyme) are resistant to infection from the H1 influenza A viruses. While the virus still infects the mice, it is unable to produce mature, infectious virus particles, and the infection is quickly cleared from their symptoms. This opens up a potential new field for drug development, and by targeting the host system rather than the virus, concerns over drug-resistance fade.

Medical Express – “The virus uses haemagglutinin as a key to enter the host cell which is then captured to build new virus particles. To reach its final shape, the coating protein has to be cleaved by a molecular scissor. This is done by an enzyme of the infected host. Otherwise, the protein is not functional and the virus particles are not infectious. A variety of host enzymes, so-called proteases, that process the haemagglutinin have been identified using cell cultures. Scientists from the HZI have now been able to show how important those enzymes are for the progression of the infection. Mice with a mutation in the gene for the protease Tmprss2 do not become infected by flu viruses containing haemagglutinin type H1. They are resistant against H1N1, the pathogen responsible for seasonal influenza epidemics, the ‘swine flu’ and the ‘Spanish flu’, which caused an epidemic in 1918. ‘These mice do not lose weight and their lungs are almost not impacted,’ says Professor Klaus Schughart, head of the Department ‘Infection Genetics’ at the HZI.”

Philippine airports on alert for bird flu

The Philippines is on high alert for the H7N9 strain of avian influenza found in Hong Kong for the first time last week. Manilla has  banned the import of all Chinese poultry products, and  airports across the island nation already screen inbound travelers to prevent the virus’ spread. This is an interesting form of biosecurity, which is something we don’t often talk about on the PR, mostly because it’s not as much of a concern for us as our colleagues in say, Australia.In this instance, the human body itself is seen as the vector for pathogen movement, rather than a kiwi or tomato plant.

Xinhua – “The Philippine government has alerted airport authorities to ensure that the deadly bird flu H7N9 could not enter the country following the recent discovery of first case in Hong Kong, the Philippines’ Department of Health ( DOH) said Wednesday. To date there are 141 cases of bird flu and 47 deaths worldwide. Deaths were due to severe pneumonia with multi-organ failure. So far, two-thirds of bird flu H7N9 cases were males and two-thirds were more than 50 years old.”

(image via Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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