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Answers Are Slow to Come for Source of Rare Bird Flu Deaths in China

Update Date: Apr 01, 2013 11:36 AM EDT

On Sunday, the Chinese government announced that two people had died from an unusual strain of bird flu, with a third person hospitalized for a severe case of infection. However, the strain of bird flu remains a mystery for officials.

According to Reuters, the strain of bird flu, H7N9, killed two men, an 87-year-old and a 27-year-old. A woman was also hospitalized for infection; she is in critical condition. Two sons of one of the men who died from the disease have since developed severe cases of pneumonia. This strain of bird flu had not previously been known to kill people.

The World Health Organization reports that the strain of bird flu does not appear to be transmitted from person to person, because the majority of family members who came into contact with the victims did not show symptoms of the disease. However, authorities have been tight-lipped about what they do know, the Associated Press reports. They did not state the victims' occupations, for example, or whether they had come into contact with animals. They are also unable to reveal the mortality rate of the strain of the disease, because many cases may have occurred with only mild symptoms.

The two men lived in the Chinese city of Shanghai. Epidemiologists have paid particular attention to densely populated areas of China and Southeast Asia, where farmers live in close proximity to poultry and pigs, breeding ideal conditions for the mutations of diseases. Indeed, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was linked to such circumstances.

Many people in the region have expressed disappointment that the cases became revealed just yesterday, when the men died in February and the woman became sick in March. However, health officials say that, since the SARS outbreak, China has reported cases properly and promptly. They say that the deaths needed to be investigated first.

Many users of the Chinese microblogging network "Weibo" suspect that the H7N9 cases are linked to the pig carcasses found in the Shanghai river. In March, 16,000 pig carcasses were retrieved from the city's water supply; the pigs were dumped in the river by farmers when the animals had become ill. Though the pigs are being included in the investigation, health officials say that they likely have little to do with the human cases.

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