In a study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases this month, an international team of researchers from the University of Hong Kong compared H7N9, which first surfaced in February this year in Shanghai killing 40 people, with influenza A (H5N1) from 16 years earlier in Hong Kong.
They noted that the viruses took the same trajectory from animal to animal and later from animal to human as both flourished in "cosmopolitan megacities that were increasing in human population and poultry consumption before the outbreaks", and both are on bird migration routes.
However, the researchers also raised the possibility that the widespread use of H5N1 vaccine in East Asia might have predisposed the emergence of H7N9 and other related viruses.
Zee Leung, programme officer at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, agrees with the findings pointing out that the research suggest that vaccination may have encouraged the H7N9 virus to mutate faster.
"Vaccines are incredibly powerful tools and they have been crucial in helping the global community to prevent and control many infectious diseases but they should not be seen as a magic bullet," says Leung.
"We need to employ a variety of solutions and work closely with wild bird ecologists, for example, to determine the best course of action. There is no one solution — vaccines have their place, but so do ecological, social and economic interventions."
As a teacher, I tend to think in education terms. So I'm comfortable with the idea that these viruses are trying to teach us something about themselves, using a fairly brutal pass-or-fail methodology of test first, lesson afterward.
Like most bright but anxious students, we often confuse getting the right answer with understanding the right question. And like all students, we prefer working as little as possible to get the right answer. Finding a cure or vaccine looks like the right answer: It certainly seems to shut the teacher up, leaving us free to consider other looming exams (or looming parties).
Never underestimate the teacher's capacity for outsmarting you, of lying in wait with a snap quiz that leaves you staring down into the abyss at your feet. The lesson of the current snap quizzes—H5N1, H7N9, MERS—seems to be that infectious diseases must be understood as manifestations of larger forces: of sudden wealth and endless poverty, of casting a vote or being unable to, or breaking with the foolish customs of the past or foolishly ignoring our ancestors' wisdom.
Until we get this part of the course into our heads, and start asking the right questions, the snap quizzes will keep coming.