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WHO Damps Fears Over Bird Flu
posted by admin on 17/05/06

Cluster in Indonesia Offers No Indication Virus Has Mutated 

Health officials played down concerns that a large cluster of human bird-flu cases in Indonesia might indicate that the virus has mutated into a more dangerous form. 

Officials of the World Health Organization, together with local authorities, have been monitoring a village in Karo district in northern Sumatra where eight members of an extended family fell ill after a recent gathering. Six of them died. Yesterday, the WHO said there is no reason to believe that the outbreak has moved beyond the family itself. 

"There is no one else who has any evidence of illness among people who were in close association with the victims," said Steven Bjorge of the WHO in Jakarta. "What we're finding is that there's no evidence of any further spread beyond this one cluster." 

Local tests have shown that five of the eight people in the cluster were infected with H5N1, a deadly strain of bird flu. Specimens from one of the six who died weren't available. Definitive results from a laboratory in Hong Kong are pending. 

Avian flu can pass from birds to people, with some difficulty. Since late 2003, when the virus re-emerged, at least 208 people in 10 countries have been infected, of whom 115 have died. 

But the Indonesian cluster, like others before it, fed fears that the virus might have mutated to a form that can spread easily among people. 

The delay in defusing speculation about possible rapid human-to-human transmission of bird flu highlights a predicament for the WHO: The United Nations agency is bound to investigate cases but loath to go public with what it discovers before local governments do. 

"We're always waiting for them to take the lead on these things. We provide advice, but after all, this is a sovereign nation, and they represent the authority of the government," said Dr. Bjorge. He, along with two other WHO officials in Indonesia, declined to release specific information they had about the cluster of cases before the central government had a chance to make it public. 

Graham Tallis, a WHO epidemiologist who traveled to the family's village to investigate the cases, said that while health officials were on alert for cases of fever and there are a lot of health-care workers in the area, "there's no evidence of spread beyond the family group." 

Seven people who had contact with the victims have tested negative, Nyoman Kandun, director general of disease control and environmental health at the Indonesian Ministry of Health in Jakarta, said late Monday. He added that no additional cases of illness have been detected. 

The WHO and local health officials are trying to figure out how the group got sick. The family members could have caught the virus from the same avian source, perhaps while preparing a meal with an infected chicken. Alternatively, the virus may have passed from one infected family member to the others, although direct transmission between humans has been suspected in very few instances. 

Even in that case, while it would be an alarmingly large cluster of human-to-human infections, it wouldn't necessarily mean that the virus had evolved to spread easily among the population at large -- the possible prelude to a pandemic. Instead, it might mean that family members had spread the virus among themselves through close and constant proximity. 

Bird flu has been spreading quickly in Indonesia. Since last year, the WHO has confirmed 33 human cases in the country. Of those, 25 have been fatal. 

Write to Nicholas Zamiska at

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