updated 6/16/2005 6:27:26 PM ET 2005-06-16T22:27:26

Indonesia on Thursday became the latest Asian nation to record a human case of bird flu, adding to worries about the spread of a virus that the U.N. health agency fears could become a threat to people around the globe.

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A poultry worker on the island of Sulawesi tested positive for the H5N1 strain of the virus, although he showed no signs of illness, said Hariadi Wibisono, who oversees the health ministry’s efforts to eradicate diseases transmitted by animals.

Bird flu has swept through poultry populations in large swaths of East and Southeast Asia since 2003. Tens of millions of chickens have either died or been slaughtered, while bird flu has killed 38 people in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia.

Fears of genetic mutation grow
Experts say that all the deaths so far have resulted from an animal passing the virus to a human. But the World Health Organization cautioned last month there are worries the virus will mutate to allow easy transmission from person to person, which could cause it to spread around the world within months.

“This is the first case found” in Indonesia, said Dr. Georg Petersen, WHO’s representative here.

A WHO technical officer, Steven Bjorge, said tests showed the man had a very low concentration of antibodies, meaning he no longer carried the virus. “It appears he was exposed to the virus some time ago.”

Bjorge said that while most people who tested positive for bird flu showed symptoms of the disease, some did not. During a 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, for example, about 10 percent of workers in poultry markets tested positive for the virus but were not ill, he said.

However, the newest case is a worrisome development.

Health experts warn that Indonesia could have trouble containing a major outbreak because it allocates only a tiny percentage of the economy to the health sector. The government already has reported bird flu infections at dozens of poultry farms across the country,

Adding to the anxieties, a government scientist last month found H5N1 in pigs on the densely populated island of Java. Experts say pigs infected with both bird flu and a human variety could act as a “mixing bowl,” producing a mutant virus that spreads easily from person to person.

The infected worker was one of several dozen Indonesians whose blood was tested for the bird flu virus in a laboratory in Hong Kong as part of a surveillance program, Wibisono said. He said there was no need to put the worker in the hospital or monitor his health.

“We have to raise our guard once again,” Wibisono told The Associated Press. “There is a possibility we will find more cases, but we hope that this does not transpire.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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