KEY POINTS

  • A large portion of the recent H5N6 outbreak occurred in Sichuan province
  • The recent infections have left many people critically ill
  • The first case of H5N6 infection in humans was reported in Laos in 2014

A recent outbreak of bird flu among residents in China is raising concern among experts, who have warned that the new strain could potentially be deadlier than a previously circulating strain. 

China has reported 21 human infections of the H5N6 strain of bird flu this year to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2020, the country only recorded five cases of the subtype of avian influenza, according to Reuters.

A large portion of the recent outbreak occurred in Sichuan province. Health officials have also recorded infections in Chongqing, Guangxi, Guangdong, Anhui and Hunan provinces.

 Avian influenza or bird flu typically occurs among wild aquatic birds. However, it can also infect domestic poultry and other animal species. It rarely infects humans. 

"The increase in human cases in China this year is of concern. It's a virus that causes high mortality," Thijs Kuiken, professor of comparative pathology at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, told the publication.

The recent infections have left many people critically ill. Six have already died of the H5N6 strain as of Tuesday. Most of the reported infections occurred in people who had come into contact with poultry. Health officials have yet to report a case of human-to-human transmission. 

On Oct. 13, a 60-year-old woman from Changde, Hunan province in China, was admitted for treatment after testing positive for the H5N6 avian flu. The woman, who is a farmer, first showed symptoms on Oct. 3, the Hong Kong Health Department said in a statement released Oct. 18.

A 55-year-old man from the Sichuan province was also hospitalized after testing positive for the H5N6 avian influenza on July 6, according to the China Global Television Network.

The report did not specify whether the man handled poultry as part of his job. It also did not state whether any of the man’s family members or close contacts were infected with the virus.

The first case of human infection of the H5N6 strain of bird flu was detected in Laos in 2014. As of Oct. 26, there have been 49 total cases of human infection with the H5N6 since 2014. At least 50% of the cases have resulted in death, according to a WHO report published Oct. 22.

China is the world's biggest producer of poultry and top producer of ducks. While the country has reported H5N6 cases in humans, officials have yet to report an outbreak in poultry since February 2020.

A bird flies holding its kill in Everglades National Park, Florida on September 30, 2021 as the largets wetland in the United States faces myriad threats from climate change A bird flies holding its kill in Everglades National Park, Florida on September 30, 2021 as the largets wetland in the United States faces myriad threats from climate change Photo: AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA