msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/29/2004 11:43:46 AM ET 2004-09-29T15:43:46

Vietnam confirmed a new bird flu death to bring Asia’s human toll to 30 on Wednesday, just as Thailand announced its first probable case of the virus jumping from one person to another.

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The latest reported death was a 14-month-old baby in Hanoi, who became Vietnam’s 20th victim. He was sickened with bird flu’s typical symptoms of fever and coughing on Aug. 28 and died Sept. 5, a Vietnamese Health Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

That announcement came a day after Thailand raised concern among health experts by reporting its first case of probable human-to-human transmission of the virus — a 26-year-old woman who became the country’s 10th confirmed fatality.

Pranee Sodchuen died Sept. 20 of bird flu, probably after catching the disease while taking care of her sickened daughter Sakuntala in a hospital. The 11-year-old died Sept. 12 but was cremated before she could be tested to confirm she had bird flu.

Understanding virusesThe recent deaths in Vietnam and Thailand are part of a second wave of outbreaks since the disease first swept through the poultry stocks of much of Asia at the start of this year, killing or forcing the cull of tens of millions of birds. A total of 30 people have died.

New outbreaks of bird flu in recent months also have been reported in Malaysia, China, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Thailand's top minister said Wednesday that the country faces a long battle against the virulent virus. While there was no evidence to suggest the case was the dreaded one that could set off a human pandemic, it spurred the government into a frenzy of action. Any immediate hopes of a quick end to the crisis were dashed swiftly.

“We are talking at least three to five years,” Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang said after the first of two emergency meetings called to figure out what to do next about a virus that has killed 10 Thais and 20 Vietnamese this year. “There are no fences along borders of countries in Asia to block migrating birds,” he said after an emergency meeting of health and agriculture officials, referring to birds blamed for the sweep of the H5N1 bird flu virus across much of Asia early this year.

'A one-alarm fire'
Pranee is the first person believed to have contracted the disease from another human, rather than poultry. She had never come in contact with poultry and did not live with her daughter who was being raised in a village where chickens were bred.

Pranee’s 32-year-old sister, who also had tended Sakuntala in the hospital, was diagnosed with bird flu Monday and is now in an isolation ward, as is her 6-year-old son. Both are listed in good condition.

Normally, people acquire bird flu from infected birds. But experts fear the bird virus will someday mutate into a form that spreads easily from one person to another, which could set the stage for a worldwide outbreak of deadly flu.

Still, international health experts said that the probable transmission of the virus from Sakuntala to Pranee looks like an isolated dead-end incident, rather than the start of a major outbreak.

“At the moment I think it’s ... a one-alarm fire, not a four-alarm fire,” flu expert Dr. William Schaffner said overnight at Vanderbilt University in the United States.

Separately, the World Health Organization said in a statement that “inefficient, limited human-to-human transmission” may occur on rare occasions, implying that it doesn’t pose a danger of pandemic proportions.

But if it turns out that human to human transmission in Thailand “has been efficient and sustained,” it “would be cause for alarm, as it might signal the start of an influenza pandemic,” the WHO said.

The H5N1 virus, capable of swift mutations, could then combine with the human flu virus into a form that could sweep through a human population with no resistance.

In 1918, such a pandemic swept around the world and killed an estimated 20 million people.

Handling the crisis
Thailand cited its own flaws in dealing with the crisis.

Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang told reporters that the government has not done a good job of educating poultry breeders, especially small-time farmers in rural areas, about the disease.

“The people who live in rural areas who raise chickens are not well informed and lack a sense of awareness about the dangers,” Chaturon told reporters before a meeting with health and agriculture ministry officials.

Chaturon, who heads a panel on efforts to prevent the disease’s spread, said government ministries had failed to work together properly on bird flu and that better coordination was “urgently needed.”

He said the government has asked all 76 provincial governors to boost cooperation between public health and agriculture ministries for around-the-clock surveillance of bird flu.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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