AR-News: More human cases as bird flu spreads

Andrew Gach unclewolf at
Sun Feb 8 15:17:39 EST 2004

      More human cases as bird flu spreads 
      New Scientist vol 181 issue 2433 - 07 February 2004, page 13 
      THE bird flu epidemic in Asia is "far from being under control", the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Bangkok warned this week. Japan and Korea seem to have halted their outbreaks, but China, Thailand and Vietnam have all reported further outbreaks in the past week. The first possible cases of human-to-human infection were also reported in Vietnam this week.

      The WHO announced that investigations in Vietnam failed to establish if two women who fell ill after contracting the H5N1 virus had ever come in contact with infected poultry. This means they may have caught the virus from family members who died of the illness.

      Neither woman passed the virus on to anyone else, which suggests that the bird flu strain has not mutated or recombined to form a new strain that can spread as easily as normal flu. Samples of the virus are now being sequenced to make sure.

      There were a few cases of human-to-human transmission in Hong Kong in 1997, the first time the H5N1 bird flu is known to have infected humans. All these people had mild symptoms if any, and no one passed it on further. "The cases in Vietnam differ because they were more severe," says Klaus Stöhr at WHO headquarters in Geneva. That is worrying because any variant of the Vietnam strain that acquires the ability to spread from person to person might be just as dangerous.

      The WHO has also confirmed that virus samples taken in April 2003 match the strain responsible for the current outbreaks, as New Scientist reported last week, suggesting it evolved much earlier than thought. However, spokeswoman Maria Cheng in Geneva has denied the speculation that the samples were from China. She would not say where they did come from.

      China's foreign ministry described the New Scientist article as "totally inaccurate, groundless and disrespectful to science". At the time the country had confirmed a small outbreak in ducks in a province bordering Vietnam. The next day Beijing confirmed outbreaks in two nearby provinces. On Saturday China's state-run media announced "suspected" cases in Shanghai, Guangdong and the eastern province of Anhui. On Sunday it added five more provinces, including the huge western province of Xinjiang. On Tuesday it confirmed the Guangdong outbreak and added two more provinces, Shaanxi and Gansu, to the list.

      Wherever the virus originated, it is clear that China, which has more poultry and more people than any other country, now faces a major epidemic. "There is a brief window of opportunity to act within China," says Julie Hall of the WHO in Beijing. "This latest news strongly suggests that the window is getting smaller."

      Debora MacKenzie
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