AN INDONESIAN VETERINATIAN CHECKS CHICKEN BLOOD SAMPLES IN CIBINONG
Crack  /  Reuters
An Indonesian veterinarian checks chicken blood samples at a poultry farm in Cibinong, West Java.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/2/2004 5:00:13 PM ET 2004-02-02T22:00:13

Bird flu has now killed 12 people in Asia and millions of chickens have been destroyed, as the World Health Organization warned Monday that the outbreak is "far from being under control." Meanwhile, a German tropical institute is examining two women for possible bird flu infection, authorities said, although initial tests did not confirm presence of the virus.

A teenage boy in Vietnam and a woman in Thailand became the latest victims of the deadly virus sweeping Asia as world health authorities sought to confirm the first possible case of human-to-human transmission of the virus.

The outbreak is “far from being under control,” said He Changchui of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. “It remains a serious public health and animal threat, particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam.”

The latest victims were a teenage boy in Vietnam and a 58-year-old woman in Thailand who raised chickens. Those countries are the only ones where humans have died from this strain of avian influenza.

Passing between humans?
The World Health Organization was investigating whether two Vietnamese sisters who died from the disease last month may have caught the disease through contact with their brother. If so, that would be the first human-to-human transmission in this outbreak.

The WHO said there was no evidence yet of a new strain that can easily be passed among people.

Investigators have failed to trace the sisters’ infection to a specific event, such as contact with sick poultry, or an environmental source. Neither human-to-human transmission nor direct contact with sick poultry can be ruled out, WHO says.

Health officials may never be able to confirm what happened, partly because the brother’s remains already have been cremated.

“The situation is always going to have a question mark hanging over it,” WHO spokesman Bob Dietz said in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Bird flu has struck poultry in at least 10 Asian countries, but infections in people have been reported only in Thailand and Vietnam.

Suspected cases in Germany
A German tropical institute is examining two women for possible bird flu infection, authorities said Monday. Initial tests have not confirmed the presence of the virus.

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The Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in the northern port city of Hamburg said in a statement:

“The clinical tests have so far not confirmed the suspicion of bird flu. The result of the molecular tests on the influenza A virus are expected in the early evening.”

“The patient will initially stay for further observation in the tropical institute’s clinic.”

It said the women had been brought in for examination on Monday morning, one suffering from possible bird flu symptoms, the other a companion who had contact with her.

She had returned from a trip to Thailand on Saturday. “After her return she suffered from unspecified general symptoms of sickness, dizziness and a fever,” the institute said.

It added that the doctors treating her had described her general condition as “good.” The female companion of the woman was also undergoing tests.

Five new cases in China
China announced five new suspected poultry cases Monday, including one in its remote northwestern region of Xinjiang — underlining the potentially broad range of the disease. Xinjiang is more than 1,000 miles from the southern region where China’s first case was confirmed last week.

With the new report, China now has three confirmed cases and eight suspected cases.

The WHO has urged China to take swifter action against bird flu, warning that its chances to contain the disease may be dwindling. Beijing has closed poultry markets and processing factories in some affected areas.

Limited human-to-human transmission of the virus is not the real danger. Instead, experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that passes easily between people.

Bird flu spread between humans in a 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong that killed six people. Although it passed from infected people to health workers, it soon lost its punch and failed to transmit further.

Symptoms were very mild or nonexistent in those who caught it from patients rather than birds.

The WHO was encouraged by tests showing that the bird flu has been in Asia since at least April without causing a large-scale human infection.

Authorities are also battling the disease in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan. The strain found in Taiwan and Pakistan is different from the influenza hitting the other countries and is not considered a serious threat to humans.

The FAO has appealed for international aid for Asian farmers, particularly in Vietnam, saying they may otherwise resist slaughtering their flocks, a crucial measure in stamping out the disease and preventing its jump to humans.

Buying time
Health experts say prescription flu drugs could provide lifesaving early protection against the virus if it disastrously mutates into a worldwide pandemic, but they warn that supplies will quickly run out unless governments stockpile the medicines.

Early talks are going on between the U.S. government and one drug maker about providing a large quantity for use in a pandemic, but at best the medicine is still months away.

If enough was available, the drugs could help buy time until a vaccine is developed to stop the flu’s spread.

The flu drugs could shorten illness and prevent lethal complications for flu victims — as well as keep healthy people from catching it, especially health care workers.

Doctors say only one brand, Tamiflu, is practical for large-scale stockpiling, but so far no government has bought the big amounts needed for a pandemic. For now, worldwide supplies are skimpy, because the drugs are not widely used to treat ordinary flu.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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