The long feared “bird flu” that experts previously believed was all but inevitable has not yet materialized, however, that doesn’t mean authorities are easing up on precautions. In Hong Kong, authorities culled some 20,000 chickens imported from mainland China after the H7N9 flu virus was found to have infected some of the birds.

Hong Kong bird flu

Hong Kong’s government has now banned the import of chickens from the mainland for three weeks while it reviews the situation. While strains of the bird flu are rarely lethal for the chickens themselves, experts believe that the virus could eventually evolve and infect people. When viruses jump from one species to another, there is a high risk that they will evolve into highly lethal strains.

Mainland China along with Hong Kong also dealing with H7N9 virus

The chickens imported into Hong Kong came from mainland China, where the national government is working to bring the most recent outbreak under control. So far 12 people have died this month from the disease, but it appears that most infections have been from bird to human. Once the disease starts spreading from person to person, the risk of an epidemic increases greatly.

The H7N9 virus has shown a higher propensity for infecting humans than other recent strains of the bird flu. So far some 200 cases has been reported since the virus was discovered in 2013. 50 people have died from the disease, resulting in a remarkably high mortality rate of 25%.

So far experts believe that in only one case did the virus manage to jump from human to human. The case happened in mainland China when a grandfather caught the disease after exposure to poultry. His granddaughter than cared for him and contracted the disease. It is believed that she contracted it directly from her grandfather.

Virus may spread internationally

So far, the H7N9 virus has been contained to China and Hong Kong. Given the high levels of international travel to and from China, however, it may only be a matter of time before the disease spreads internationally. While safety precautions are far higher today than they were in the past, the world is also increasingly intertwined through airlines and other transportation networks.

So long as the virus does not start jumping from human-to-human, however, the risk of the disease spreading beyond a few isolated cases remains low. That being said, some experts still believe it is only a matter of time before the disease develops the ability to jump from human to human. If so, the world could face a genuine crisis.