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New bird flu kills 9 in China

Nine people have died and 28 are confirmed infected with a new type of bird flu in eastern China, the official Xinhua news agency said Tuesday. But officials say China's come a long way in watching for and controlling new disease outbreaks.

Chinese authorities are rushing to test patients with respiratory illness to see how far the new H7N9 bird flu has spread. They’re also starting culls of chickens and other birds, which are suspected of spreading the infection, and have closed some live bird markets.

The new strain of flu -- never before seen to cause serious illness in people -- appears to have first started making people ill in February. Chinese authorites announced  the first cases in March.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated its Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, in Atlanta in response to the H7N9 outbreak, spokesman Tom Skinner said. The EOC was activated at Level 2 of three levels and involves dozens of personnel, he said. A Level 1 activation would signal an agency-wide response.

Flu occasionally passes from animals to people, and most experts believe that new pandemics of influenza have originated in animals – most likely pigs, but also possibly chickens and ducks. Dr. Arnold Monto, an expert on influenza and other infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, notes that several cases were reported last summer of people infected with a strain of flu called H3N2 from pigs at state fairs.

One woman died but the flu did not spread widely.

“What is going on in China is a little scarier,” Monto told NBC News. “The reason it is a little scarier is that it seems to be causing severe disease.”

There’s no evidence yet that people are infecting one another -- which is the main requirement for flu to spread among human populations and cause epidemics. Chinese authorities believe everyone who has been infected caught it somehow from a bird.

While Chinese officials were accused of covering up the outbreak of SARS -- severe acute respiratory syndrome -- in 2003, Monto and other U.S. health officials say a lot has changed.

“What (these reports) tell us is that the Chinese are very good at influenza surveillance and detecting these variants,” he said. “In the old days, they probably would not have been able to report them.”

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been working hard to encourage Chinese health officials to test people for new types of flu, including helping them build new testing facilities. 

The CDC’s Dr. Joe Bresee says concerns over H5N1 bird flu, which has infected 622 people in 15 countries and killed 371 of them, kick-started efforts.

“The surveillance system in China has really dramatically improved over the last decade or so since the introduction of H5, the catalyst for that,” Bresee told reporters last week.

“They have a wide dispersion of labs that can detect flu, generally speaking, using the best methods, called PCR. They have well over 400 of these labs around the country that have grown up over that last few years. They really do have the ability to look for flu, wherever it is, in the country,” he added.

H5N1 has been steadily infecting poultry and people since 2003, but has never mutated into a form that spreads easily from person to person. Xinhua reported late on Monday that a 2-year-old died of H5N1 in Bangladesh – the first death there, although there have been six cases.