The Department of Health has warned GPs to be alert to the possibility of bird flu in people who have recently returned from China.
The warning was sent last week after China confirmed it had identified eleven cases of human infection with the new strain of avian influenza A (H7N9), including five deaths.
GPs are told they should consider anyone who develops a serious respiratory illness in the seven days following arrival in the UK from China a potential case.
Latest figures from the World Health Organisation put the number of laboratory confirmed cases at 21, with one further death. The remainder of cases are in a critical condition or recovering.
So far no link between cases has been identified and there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus.
The virus, which is sensitive to the antiviral treatments Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and Zanamivir (Relenza), causes typical flu symptoms, with high fever and cough progressing to breathing difficulties, pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
In a letter sent to all GPs in England, chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies says Public Health England has intensified surveillance and revised the avian influenza investigation algorithm.
‘Screening tests can be carried out by designated regional Public Health Laboratories but samples will need to be sent to the national influenza reference laboratory for a definitive test,’ the letter states.
GPs who need further advice on H7N9 testing and infection control should contact their local health protection centre.
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