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Bird Flu – preparing for the winter outbreak

Updated On: Dec 18, 2007

Winter is coming and bird flu worries are out in the open again.

A 24-year-old man surnamed Lu from eastern Jiangsu province died on 2 December 2007 of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in the first case in China since June 2007. The Chinese victim's father was also diagnosed with the disease, raising fears over human-to-human infection. The rare case of two family members struck by the disease has drawn urgent concern from health authorities, as humans almost always contract H5N1 from infected birds. Experts fear the virus could mutate into a strain that jumps easily from person to person, enabling it to go pandemic.

Chinese Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qun'an said analysis of a sample taken from the dead son indicated the bird flu virus had not mutated, but he could not exclude the possibility of human-to-human infection in this case. "The virus is still avian and has not undergone a mutation in its nature," he told a news conference in Beijing on Monday. Mao said one of the men might nonetheless have infected the other through close contact, or they might have become infected from another source or separate sources. "We can't offer a final determination on these three possibilities," he said, according to a government webcast. "There is a thorough investigation under way."

China's agriculture ministry was "not optimistic" about winter and spring, when the virus is at its most contagious, the China Daily quoted Yin Chengjie, a vice minister of agriculture, as saying. Methods of poultry breeding, slaughter, delivery, and processing still needed "radical changes", and prevention measures were not fully carried out in some regions, Yin said. He called on local authorities to step up immunisation efforts and testing of birds at border areas and local wetlands.

Even so-called pariah states like Myanmar are worried about the spread of the bird flu. In Myanmar, a 7-year old girl, Ma Nan Kham Tha, was found infected with bird flu virus among four suspected of carrying the virus during the outbreak last month in Kengtung's Naungngin village

A high-ranking Myanmar health official has stressed the urgent need for drawing plan and introducing fresh measures for effective prevention of human infection of bird flu in the country in the wake of first such infection being reported in the country recently. “Priority is to be given to the prevention of bird flu virus strain as mortality rate is much higher than that caused by SARS," warned Deputy Health Minister Dr. Mya Oo.

He urged the departments concerned to take effective measures in the fight against the pandemic, drawing lessons from the past when SARS broke out. He reiterated that the recent child infection of bird flu in the border area of Kengtung in eastern Shan state has been under control with the virus strain being unable to infect others, thanks to the effective fight against the pandemic. He called for implementing the prevention work in cooperation with the public as a national concern.

Unlike IndonesiaMyanmar is sharing its bird flu samples with international bodies. Specimens of the four suspected were first sent to a lab in Yangon which confirmed on 26 Nov 2007 the girl's infection. The human samples of the four were also sent to a lab in Bangkok as well as a lab of the World Health Organization in Tokyo and those laboratory tests further confirmed the status, the earlier report said. In its prevention and control measures, local authorities culled 14,889 chickens, ducks, geese and Muscovy ducks within a week after such unusual deaths were found on the fowls traded in the area.

Outside East Asia, international health experts have been dispatched to Pakistan to help investigate the cause of South Asia's first outbreak of bird flu in people and determine if the virus could have been transmitted through human contact. Four brothers — two of whom died — and two cousins from Abbotabad were suspected of being infected by the H5N1 virus, said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl inGeneva. A man and his niece from the same area who had slaughtered chickens were also suspected of having the virus. Hartl said WHO has not ruled out limited human-to-human transmission. "We can't answer that yet," he said. "It's possible."

A team from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit in Cairo was also dispatched to Pakistan to help with the investigation, said Dave Daigle, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Khalif Bile, WHO representative in Pakistan said that preliminary tests had been carried out. He said the WHO was encouraging the government to carry out confirmation tests in the same government laboratory and the results should be available by Tuesday. People who came into contact with those infected in Pakistan are being monitored, the WHO said.

Overall, however, the World Health Organisation (WHO) praised Asian countries for swiftly reporting the latest bird flu cases after Pakistan and Myanmar were hit by a resurgence of the disease. Asia-Pacific spokesman Peter Cordingley said prompt notification was helping keep the virus in check after Pakistan announced its first human death and Myanmar revealed its first human case.

"People have learned that hiding cases just makes things worse," Cordingley told AFP. Cordingley warned bird flu was likely to become more prevalent with the onset of the northern hemisphere winter. "At this time of year, we do expect the virus to be more active in poultry and humans," said Cordingley, who is based in Manila. "In the same way that you and I are picking up flus, so will birds." "This virus is no respecter of borders, so there nothing startling about the latest outbreak," Cordingley said. "We have always seen more cases in the cooler months, so there is nothing surprising in the developments in Pakistanand Myanmar," he added.

Cordingley said the spread of the virus was assisted by migratory patterns of birds, but also illegal trade in poultry, which is a staple food for much of Southeast Asia. "This virus will continue. We cannot fight it on a public health front, it depends on how farmyards and chickens are raised and that is a long-term fight," he said.  (17 December 2007)

Sources:

WHO to Investigate Pakistan Bird Flu (AP, 17 December 2007)

WHO praises swift bird flu reporting (AFP, 17 December 2007)

Myanmar stresses effective prevention of human bird flu infection (Xinhua, 16 December 2007)

China warns of winter bird flu outbreaks (New Scientist, 11 December 2007)