Despite three more human cases of bird flu in Viet Nam, bringing the total there since mid-December to 28, there is currently no evidence that the virus is spreading easily from person to person, according to the United Nations health agency’s latest update on a disease that in a worst-case scenario could kill tens of millions people worldwide.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) said rapid sharing with the agency of viruses from recent clusters of cases of the highly lethal disease has become increasingly important.
“Thorough investigation of all such clusters is essential to determine possible changes in the behaviour of the virus and thus support assessment of the risk of an influenza pandemic,” it added of the H5N1 virus. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, unrelated to the present virus, is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.
WHO is also aware of reports of suspected infection in five members of a family – a couple and their three young daughters – presently hospitalized in the northern port of Haiphong and undergoing further investigation. The current outbreak in Viet Nam has included several clusters, mostly in family members, of cases closely related in time and place.
Neighbouring Cambodia has also confirmed its second human case of H5N1, both fatal. Overall there have been more than 70 reported infections, nearly 50 of them fatal, since the first human case linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand was reported in January last year.
Meanwhile the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has sent a veterinary expert to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to obtain further information on the extent of the current bird flu outbreak among chickens and to offer assistance to control the virus. Two more experts will arrive within the next few days.
“The spread of the disease into North Korea underlines the need for close regional cooperation,” FAO said today. “It is essential to fight the bird flu virus in poultry, free-range chickens and ducks in order to reduce the risk of a human flu pandemic.”
Nearly 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled over the past year in southeast Asia in an effort to curb the spread of H5N1. WHO is concerned that continuing transmission to humans might give avian and human influenza viruses an opportunity to exchange genes, facilitating a pandemic.