It will take a while for this story to become more clear. Anticipating that, I want to suggest some things to think about as you follow the news.
My first caution is: Remember that much of the news published in China is still reviewed by censors before being published. The Chinese government has shown encouraging transparency this week: for instance, it reported the pigeon to the OIE, the usually used French acronym for the World Organization for Animal Health, and its internal CDC quickly popped up a FAQ on this flu. Historically, those are truly unusual steps. Nevertheless, anything that comes out of mainstream media is likely to be conservative.
Second: China has a Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo. It. too, is censored, almost in real time. To avoid censorship, messages on important subjects are often written in a kind of allusive code. Machine translation does not pick this up; relying on machine translation for any Chinese reports (as most of the people you will hear talking about H7N9 in North America and Europe will be doing) is simply an invitation to error.
Third: Twitter. (Ah, Twitter.) There is going to be a lot of good on Twitter — astonishingly, the WHO said this morning that they will publish case updates to Twitter first — but there is already a huge froth of speculation and error. (One example that just flitted past me: “H7N9 hits Hong Kong!” Hong Kong has one suspected case, based on a travel history to Shanghai. Also: It’s flu season in Hong Kong.)
Fourth, and related: Don’t assume that everyone who is loading information onto their blogs or pushing it onto Twitter is doing it in a sharing spirit of helpfulness. There are people — you can see this already — who are opportunistically using this to feed their egos, angle for jobs, or generally to stir up trouble. More than ever, it’s important to be skeptical about the sources of the information you consume.
So having said that, who are trusted sources? Here is my short list: people or organizations who understand flu, have excellent sources of information, and can be relied on not to over-hype.
Reporters: Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press; Declan Butler of Nature; Martin Enserink of Science; my former colleagues Lisa Schnirring and Robert Roos at CIDRAP. (Also Mara Hvistendahl of Science, if she covers this, as she is based in Shanghai.)
Bloggers/aggregators: Crawford Kilian (@crof) ; Mike Coston (@Fla_Medic).
Crowdsourced data: HealthMap, a huge Harvard- and Google-backed effort that combines Web-scraping with human review (also on Twitter, as is their blog editor Anna Tomasulo and their founder John Brownstein); FluTrackers, a volunteer, civilian effort that has been going since the H5N1 days.
Media on the ground: Xinhua; China Daily; South China Morning Post, in Hong Kong, somewhat more free to report.
Official sources: WHO; China CDC; European CDC and its journal, EuroSurveilance; US CDC; OIE.You have no idea how relieved I am to have made the cut.