It is not possible to predict what path the new H7N9 bird flu outbreak will take, the head of the World Health Organization said at the World Health Assembly in Geneva on Monday.

The H7N9 virus was detected at the end of March this year in China. WHO’s head, Dr Margaret Chan, addressing the assembly said: “Within three weeks, more than 100 additional cases were confirmed. Although the source of human infection with the virus is not yet fully understood, the number of new cases dropped dramatically following the closing of live bird markets.”

The avian flu subtype has so far killed 36 people, although no new cases have been reported in the past week, and emergency responses have been scaled back in two Chinese provinces.

However scientists are concerned about H7N9 because it has killed one-fifth of all the people it has known to infect, and has undergone two of the five mutations needed to become an airborne virus that can pass between humans. At present the virus is only known to be transmitted from poultry to humans. And unlike H5N1 bird flu, it is more difficult to detect because infected birds do not show symptoms.

Meanwhile a new coronavirus, from the same family as Sars, which was first detected last year in the Middle East, has claimed its 21st victim, according to a report from the BBC. To date, 41 cases have been detected in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, the UK and France.

To contain disease outbreaks, experts and public health official have to play a difficult balancing act between keeping the public informed and causing panic. This time around, international flu experts have so far praised the Chinese authorities for the way they have shared information about the outbreak.

“These two new diseases remind us that the threat from emerging and epidemic-prone diseases is ever-present,” said the WHO’s Dr Chan, “going forward, we must maintain a high level of vigilance.”

This is in addition to recent lessons learned from H1N1 (swine flu) and Sars – showing how important co-ordination, collaboration and action plans are to containing a potential pandemic. This extends to the media, which have a key role to play in saving lives, providing vital information and supporting public health officials.

CBA’s workshop at the Asia Media Summit (AMS), Be Prepared! Managing Your Organisation Through a Global Pandemic is therefore timely training for broadcasters. Participants will be receive a 360-degree briefing on pandemics, how to ensure broadcasting continuity in a disease-related disaster scenario and coordinating with authorities. Delegates attending the AMS are encouraged to take part in this highly topical session.

Image: A live poultry market. Many have been closed in China to contain the H7N9 outbreak. Creative Commons/Padmanaba01