Health officials in New York have confirmed that the H7N2 strain of bird flu virus has, for the first time, been transmitted from a cat to a human.
A veterinarian at the Animal Care Center's of NYC's Manhattan shelter whose work involved gathering respiratory specimens from sick cats was infected. The shelter was reportedly home to at least 45 cats infected with H7N2, the first jump of the flu strain from birds to cats.
The infected veterinarian's illness was brief and has resolved itself, according to NYC Health. More than 150 other ACC staff have been screened for H7N2, with no one else testing positive. Screenings of volunteers and those who adopted cats from the shelter have also not turned up any new cases.
NYC Health said more than 100 cats across city shelters have tested positive for H7N2, all of whom are expected to recover from the illness, which spreads quickly among cats. Until the infected cats can be quarantined and brought back to full health, the ACC sites have suspended cat adoptions.
Other ACC shelter animals, such as dogs and rabbits, have tested negative for the virus.
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"Our investigation confirms that the risk to human health from H7N2 is low, but we are urging New Yorkers who have adopted cats from a shelter or rescue group within the past three weeks to be alert for symptoms in their pets," said New York Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett in a press release. "We are contacting people who may have been exposed and offering testing as appropriate."
H7N2 is a flu virus known to circulate among birds. To date there have only been two other cases of humans becoming infected with the strain. A 2002 case in Virginia saw a worker infected while participating in culling activities centered around a poultry outbreak, while in 2003 an adult male in New York was infected. In both cases, the illnesses resolved themselves.
No cases of human-to-human infection have been reported.
Several strains of bird flu exist, including the one most deadly to humans, H5N1. Culls of suspect bird populations have typically been performed in response to outbreaks. Recently The Netherlands killed some 190,000 ducks, while South Korea has culled an estimated 700,000 birds to contain the H5N6 strain. France, for its part, has detected the H5N8 strain in wild ducks.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), H7N2 spreads among cats just as human flu spreads among people: through direct contact, via airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, and contact with contaminated surfaces. It can jump to humans from cats when people contact the animal and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. Airborne droplets from a cat's sneeze or cough could also reach a human's nose, mouth or eyes.
The agency says influenza in cats is not common and typically only produces a mild illness. Symptoms of a flu in cats include sneezing, coughing, fever, eye or nose discharge, lethargy and loss of appetite. Persistent coughing, lip smacking, runny nose, and fever have proven to be the hallmark symptoms displayed by the New York shelter cats that were infected with H7N2.
"No other H7N2 outbreaks or H7N2 infections in cats in the United States have been reported," the CDC reports. "Therefore, unless your cat recently came from an ACC animal shelter in New York City, the likelihood of your cat having H7N2 is extremely low."
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