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Experts unclear how China bird flu infects humans

BEIJING -- Almost three weeks after China reported finding a new strain of bird flu in humans, experts are stumped by how people are becoming infected when many appear to have had no recent contact with live fowl and the virus isn't supposed to pass from person to person.

The uncertainty adds to challenges the Chinese government is facing in trying to control the spread of the H7N9 virus, which has killed 17 people and infected 70 others, mostly along the eastern seaboard.

"To me, the biggest question is the link between the virus in birds and how it gets to humans. This is not clear," said Dr. Bai Chunxue, a respiratory expert in Shanghai who treated one of the first cases, a family cluster involving an 87-year-old man and his two sons. Bai said other family members told him the patients had no contact with birds or poultry.

Theories among experts about how the virus may be spreading run from the ways poultry is slaughtered in markets to infected droppings from migratory birds.

Understanding how H7N9 is spreading is a goal of international and Chinese experts assembled by the World Health Organization as they begin a weeklong investigation today. Helen Yu, WHO spokeswoman in China, said the experts, will visit laboratories and affected areas in Beijing and Shanghai.

China announced the first known cases on March 31, sparking concern worldwide because it was the first time the H7N9 strain of bird flu has been known to infect humans. They fear the virus could mutate in a way that allows it to spread easily among people, but so far there has been no sign of sustained human-to-human transmission. -- AP

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