Fears that bird flu may have spread to southern Iraq rose Tuesday when authorities announced they were investigating whether a teenage pigeon seller had died of the virus — Iraq’s third suspected case.
In Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, health officials said 14-year-old Muhannad Radhi Zaouri died Sunday. His blood was being tested for bird flu, said Dr. Haider Abdul-Ridha, director of the communicable disease department at Amarah health department.
Iraq’s first confirmed human case of the deadly H5N1 strain was a 15-year-old girl who died Jan. 17 in Kurdistan. The girl’s uncle died Jan. 27, and health authorities are waiting to learn if he also contracted bird flu.
It could take up to 10 days for results from the Baghdad laboratory that is trying to determine whether Zaouri died of the strain. Authorities removed all the pigeons from the boy’s house — including some that later died — and are testing the birds.
A U.S. official in Baghdad said if the Amarah death is confirmed as bird flu, it could indicate that migratory birds unaffected by the virus were still capable of spreading it along their flight path.
“It bodes concern that migratory ducks and geese have carried the virus, not gotten sick and been able to infect other domestic birds, which in turn infected a human,” the official said on condition he not be identified as he was unauthorized to speak to the media.
Migratory birds have carried the disease from East Asia to Turkey and paths followed by ducks and geese do run through Iraq, starting at a northern reservoir near the town where the girl who died came from, and stretching south along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Along the way, birds stop in Iraq’s southern marshlands before heading toward Kuwait and South Africa.
Iraqi health officials have been working to contain the outbreak, slaughtering more than 500,000 birds.
According to the World Health Organization, about 160 cases of the virus have been reported worldwide, and at least 85 people have died. Almost all of those who died were in Asia, and most are believed to have come into contact with infected birds.
Experts fear the strain could mutate into a form easily transmissible from human to human and spark a worldwide pandemic.