Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Human passing of bird flu suspected

OMINOUS DEVELOPMENT If the WHO is correct, the finding in northern Thailand would indicate that the deadly disease can now be transmitted between people

AFP , BANGKOK

The World Health Organization said yesterday it was "suspecting human-to-human transmission" of bird flu had occurred in northern Thailand, marking what could be the first such transmission of the lethal virus.

"From the existing data ... we are suspecting human to human transmission" of bird flu, the WHO's acting Thailand representative Kumara Rai told AFP after studying information from Kamphaeng Phet province where the deaths of a girl and boy are suspected to be caused by bird flu.

The 11-year-old girl's mother, who lived near Bangkok but traveled north to visit her daughter in hospital and then attend her funeral, returned to the Thai capital where she too fell ill and died. Her death is also on the suspect list.

Bird flu is suspect but has not been confirmed in the cases, and laboratory tests on the three fatalities, as well as of the girl's aunt who has been hospitalized with severe pneumonia, were being conducted to determine whether they carried the virus.

Rai said the WHO was "very much concerned, but we are awaiting the laboratory confirmation," which is expected as early as Monday.

He said he had contacted the UN health agency's headquarters in Geneva to urge them to send experts to Thailand to assist in the field investigation.

Avian influenza's lethal H5N1 strain has killed 28 people in Vietnam and Thailand this year in two waves of Asian outbreaks which also caused the death or culling of more than 100 million chickens.

The WHO fears H5N1 could mutate into a highly contagious form that triggers a global human flu pandemic.

When asked if a confirmed viral leap between humans in the Thai cases would mark the first step in such a feared mutation, Rai said "I think so."

Health ministry officials have confirmed the girl and the 13-year-old boy in Kamphaeng Phet had come into contact with their households' chickens that fell ill and died, but Rai and others have said it was not clear whether the mother and the aunt had contact with the animals.

Rai met Friday with field epidemiologists, Thai-based officials from the US Centers for Disease Control, and senior Thai health ministry officials to establish whether the women had come into contact with the fowl.

"We are still almost firm that there was no contacts with sick birds," Rai said.

Thailand has been put on full bird flu alert as a precautionary measure, said Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, who along with other officials has acknowledged concern has mounted the mother and aunt may have contracted bird flu directly from the girl.

Sudarat sought to downplay the fears, stressing preliminary tests on the aunt showed no bird flu.

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