In late January, Shanghai authorities took the unprecedented step of shutting down the city’s live poultry markets. The impetus was an effort to contain the spread of the H7N9 avian flu, which public health officials believe was spreading to humans through contact with infected live birds. After three months, Shanghai’s poultry markets reopened on May 1.
Chinese authorities have already confirmed more than 130 human infections of H7N9, and at least 38 deaths, in 2014. The first laboratory-confirmed human infection was reported in March 2013. Almost all the victims have had known exposure to live poultry.
While there are some instances of infection among multiple members of a single family, Chinese authorities have not to date confirmed any cases of sustained human-to-human transmission. But scientists worry that the virus may over time evolve into a form that may be more easily transmissible between people.
Public anxiety over H7N9, which has claimed at least 99 lives in China, has sparked a heated national debate. “Live poultry trade at local markets has long been a part of China’s national identity. … Unfortunately, the backdrop to this tradition has changed,” George Gao, deputy director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in an April 18 editorial in the journal Science.
Gao, a prominent voice in China’s public health debates, is in favor of keeping poultry markets shut. “Scientific evidence points to a connection between the conditions at these live markets and the spread of flu, suggesting that until other means are found to prevent the transmission of or effectively treat the illness,” he wrote, “China must shut down live poultry markets to prevent further spread of the virus and a possible global pandemic.”