04/08/2013 01:24 EDT | Updated 06/07/2013 05:12 EDT

World Health Organization talks with China about sending team to look into bird flu cases

BEIJING, China - The World Health Organization is talking with the Chinese government about sending international experts to China to help investigate a new bird flu strain that has sickened at least 21 people, killing six of them.

Michael O'Leary, head of WHO's office in China, told reporters in Beijing on Monday that the international health organization had confidence in China's efforts to track and control the outbreak of H7N9 infections, but that growing interest in the virus globally has prompted WHO to consider sending a team.

The cases are of "great interest not only in the scientific community but in the world at large," O'Leary said. "WHO's responsibility in part is to make sure that we serve as liaison and linkage between China and the rest of the world."

The team would likely include epidemiological, laboratory and communications experts, but the matter was still being discussed by the two sides and it remained unclear if and when such a group would arrive, O'Leary said.

China reported three more cases of human infection of the H7N9 bird flu virus on Sunday, raising the total number of cases to 21 — all in the eastern part of the country. Most of the 21 have become severely ill, and six of them have died.

The H7N9 strain previously was known only to infect birds, and officials say they do not know why the virus is infecting humans now. They are still determining how people were exposed to it. The virus has been detected in live poultry in several food markets where human cases have been found, leading officials to think people are most likely contracting the virus through direct contact with infected fowl.

They say further investigations are underway and that, for now, there's no evidence the virus is spreading easily between people.

Authorities have halted live poultry trade in cities where cases have been reported, and slaughtered fowl in markets where the virus has been detected.