Cambodia yesterday reported its second suspected death from bird flu, while health experts investigated an outbreak in central Vietnam where scores of people complained of flu-like symptoms after a 5-year-old boy contracted the deadly disease.
The 26-year-old Cambodian man, who died late Tuesday in Phnom Penh, would be the 47th human victim of the disease in Southeast Asia since a severe form of bird flu began ravaging Asian poultry farms in December 2003. Most of the human victims have been in Vietnam and Thailand.
More than 1.5 million birds have died or been slaughtered this year. Experts fear that the virus may mutate into a form that is easily transmissible among people, sparking a global pandemic. However, there is no evidence that this has occurred, and most of the human cases have been traced to contact with sick poultry.
Still, the World Health Organization has urged governments to pour more resources into combating the disease, warning that millions could die in a bird flu pandemic. Earlier this week, Sweden announced it was stockpiling 500,000 doses of antiviral drugs in case the disease reaches its shores.
Cambodian Deputy Agriculture Minister Yim Voeun Tharn said chickens were dying in the province where the dead man lived but that villagers did not immediately tell authorities because they didn't want their remaining stocks culled. Their reluctance illustrates the hurdles Asian health officials face in fighting the disease.
"Many people have cooked the sick or dead birds to eat because they are very poor, but no one fell sick," he said.
Experts were traveling to the area to investigate how the man became infected, said Cambodian Health Minister Nuth Sokhom. Yim Voeun Tharn said he fell ill after working in a village where chickens had died. A 25-year-old woman, who died in January in Vietnam from the disease, was also from Kampot.
So far, Vietnam has been hardest hit by the virus. Since late December, 25 people have contracted bird flu in Vietnam, 13 of whom have died.
Health officials were alarmed by reports this week of 195 people with flu-like symptoms in Quang Binh province where a 5-year-old boy was infected with bird flu two weeks ago, and a team of six experts has gone to investigate, said Dinh Sy Hien, deputy director of the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang.
However, he said Wednesday that many villagers might have panicked when they learned about the boy's infection, and experienced psychologically induced symptoms. A local health official said that by Wednesday a survey showed only about 37 people living in the same commune as the boy were reporting sniffling and coughing. There were no reports of fever.
Still, the WHO is monitoring the situation and has a quarantine plan in place if a large number of people test positive for bird flu, said Hans Troedsson, WHO country director. He said a team of international experts also could be sent to the area quickly if needed.
Troedsson, however, added that other illnesses, such as other types of influenza and dengue fever, must be ruled out first.
The 5-year-old boy was hospitalized March 12, three days after his 13-year-old sister died following symptoms of a high fever and labored breathing. She was never tested for bird flu.
The boy's uncle told authorities the family ate a chicken after it became sick and died, a common practice in the village. The boy was in stable condition this week, a doctor at the hospital said.