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New Bird Flu Cluster May Signal Change in H5N1 Virus
posted by admin on 16/01/07

Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) -- A new cluster of bird flu infections involving at least two members of a family in Indonesia may indicate a change in the virus's ability to sicken people, researchers studying the disease said.

The H5N1 avian influenza strain was confirmed yesterday to have infected an 18-year-old man whose mother died of the disease four days ago, said Mukhtar Ikhsan, a doctor treating the teenager and his father in Jakarta's Persahabatan hospital.

Tests on the 42-year-old father are pending. If confirmed, the family from a western part of Java may represent the first incidence of H5N1 in a husband and wife, and indicate the virus can infect those without genetic susceptibility to infection, a theory doctors have used to explain previous clusters among blood relatives. The virus could spark a pandemic if it spreads among humans as easily as seasonal flu.

The concern is that the virus may eventually overcome a ``genetic component'' that has appeared so far to limit its ability to infect humans, Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, said in a Jan. 12 interview. ``If that happens, then to me that is the really first worrisome piece of information that the pandemic may be pending.''

Avian flu has killed four people in Indonesia since Jan. 10 after a hiatus of almost two months. World health officials say H5N1 may touch off a pandemic capable of killing millions if it mutates to become easily transmissible between humans.

The H5N1 strain is known to have infected 265 people in 10 countries since 2003, killing 159 of them, the World Health Organization said on Jan. 12. Indonesia has recorded at least 59 fatalities, it said.

Sumatra Cluster

The southeast Asian nation attracted international attention in May when blood relatives from the island of Sumatra contracted the H5N1 virus, six of them fatally. The cases represented the largest reported cluster of infections and the first laboratory-proven instance of human-to-human transmission.

``We have had enough proof from these clusters that there is something about at least certain genetically related individuals in whom the virus does fairly well,'' Osterholm said. ``That, to me, is not necessarily a big barrier to cross.''

Infections in birds and people are increasing, particularly in Asia, where the virus was first identified a decade ago. Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Nigeria have reported diseased birds in the past month, while China and Egypt also found new human cases.

New Thai Outbreak?

In Thailand, which reported three H5N1 fatalities in July and August, Agriculture Ministry officials are testing dead poultry found on a duck farm in Phitsanulok province earlier this month, the Krungthep Thurakit newspaper reported today, without saying where it obtained the information. The results of laboratory tests may be released today, it said.

The Thai ministry intensified monitoring for avian flu after it reemerged in Vietnam, where it spread to at seven southern Vietnamese provinces.

The H5N1 virus killed 66 ducks in My Tu district of Soc Trang province, the Vietnamese Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development's department for animal health said yesterday. The remaining 134 ducks in the infected flock were culled, the department said in a statement on its Web site, adding that the poultry hadn't been properly vaccinated against avian flu.

Almost all human H5N1 cases have been linked to close contact with sick or dead birds, such as children playing with them or adults butchering them or plucking feathers.

Japan Outbreak

Veterinary officials in Japan are culling fowl on a farm on the southern island of Kyushu, where H5N1 was confirmed Jan. 13, the country's first outbreak in almost three years.

The administrative vice minister of agriculture will brief reporters in Tokyo later today on the outbreak.

A suspected avian flu outbreak was recorded in northern Nigeria's Sokoto state a day after the disease was reportedly found to have infected 5,000 birds in nearby Kastina state, Agence France-Presse said yesterday, citing Forestry and Animal Health Commissioner Abdulkadir Junaidu.

Nigeria reported an initial H5N1 outbreak in poultry in February last year, the first recorded infection of the virus in Africa. The disease was later found in 17 of Nigeria's 36 states as well as the Federal Capital Territory, reaching every corner of the country. No human infections were reported.

``We continue to be very concerned about Africa,'' John Underwood, the World's Bank's avian flu adviser, said in a Jan. 9 statement. ``The disease has become widespread in Nigeria, and there are several other countries where the threat is pretty big.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Gale in Singapore at j.gale@bloomberg.net

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