• The woman got sick in February and died in mid-March
  • The strain she had was different from the one circulating in birds
  • The risk of person-to-person transmission is "low," as per WHO

A woman in China died from avian influenza A(H3N8), authorities have reported. This marks the first human death from this strain.

The World Health Organization (WHO) learned of the human infection from the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China on March 27, it noted in a statement Tuesday. The case was of a 56-year-old woman from Guangdong Province whose illness started on Feb. 22. She was hospitalized with severe pneumonia and succumbed to the illness on March 16.

No other cases have so far been identified during investigations and contact tracing. This is the third human infection with avian influenza A(H3N8), noted the WHO, with all three infections being reported from China.

The two other cases were reported in 2022, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These cases were of children — one in April 2022 and another just a month later.

The first child became critically ill while the other only experienced mild symptoms, but both of them eventually recovered from their illness. None of their close contacts tested positive for influenza A.

Both children reportedly had a history of being in contact with poultry or wild birds, and so did the woman who eventually died.

To be clear, this avian influenza strain is not the same as the one that's currently circulating among wild birds and poultry across the world — that is H5N1, and it's "unrelated" to H3N8, according to the CDC.

"Based on available information, it appears that this virus does not have the ability to spread easily from person to person, and therefore the risk of it spreading among humans at the national, regional and international levels is considered to be low," the WHO said.

The CDC also has a similar assessment of the situation for the U.S., with the agency noting that the case is not believed to "pose a risk to U.S. public health at this time." So far, there have been no H3N8 human bird flu cases identified in the U.S.

"(H)owever, H3N8 viruses of a different genetic lineage have been detected in U.S. wild birds and some mammals in the past," the agency noted. "In 2011, there was an outbreak of H3N8 viruses among harbor seals in New England that caused deaths in 162 seals."

So far, the current efforts are focused mainly on H5N1 bird flu, which has been spreading in many parts of the world and only recently caused the death of a dog in Canada.

Despite the assessed "low" risk of an H3N8 spread from person to person, the WHO is still stressing the importance of surveillance because of influenza viruses' "constantly evolving nature."

"To better understand the current risk to public health, more information is needed from both human and animal investigation," the agency noted. "The variety of zoonotic influenza viruses that have led to human infections is worrying and demands increased surveillance in both animal and human populations, as well as a comprehensive examination of each zoonotic infection, and planning for pandemics."

Representation. A hospital bed. Pixabay