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Boy beats bird flu as more outbreaks hit Asia

A Thai boy tested positive for bird flu, but doctors said there was no sign he caught the virus from his infected father who died earlier this week, suggesting the H5N1 strain had not mutated into a pandemic form.
Seven-year-old Thai boy rests in Bangkok hospital, one day after lab tests confirmed his 48-year-old father as Thailand's 13th victim of deadly bird flu virus
Thai boy Ronarit Benpad rests in a Bangkok hospital on October 21, one day after lab tests confirmed his 48-year-old father as Thailand's 13th victim of the deadly bird flu virus. Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

A Thai boy tested positive for bird flu on Friday, but doctors said he was recovering and there was no sign he caught the virus from his infected father who died earlier this week, calming fears of a human pandemic.

New cases were reported in Britain, Romania and Croatia, but there was no immediate indication that they involved the lethal H5N1 strain of the virus.

Bangkok youngster Ronarit Benpad, 7, who was treated with anti-flu drug Tamiflu in the early stages of his infection, had recovered his appetite and his temperature had returned to normal, although he would remain under observation for two weeks, doctors said.

“There is no evidence to prove the boy became infected from his father,” Prasit Watanapa, director of Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital, told reporters. “This boy had direct contact in the infected area.”

Ronarit’s father became Thailand’s 13th official bird flu victim when he died on Wednesday in a resurgence of the virus in east and Southeast Asia which has fanned fears of the H5N1 strain mutating into a form that jumps from person to person.

Since breaking out in late 2003 in South Korea, H5N1 has killed more than 60 people in four Asian countries and reached as far west as European Russia, Turkey and Romania, tracking the paths of migratory birds.

New bird flu cases were discovered in Europe on Friday. Britain said a parrot that died in quarantine had been diagnosed with an H5 virus, but did not say whether it was H5N1.

Croatia said it had detected a bird flu virus in six dead swans and had sent samples to Britain for testing.

And Romania said it had detected a new suspected case close to its eastern border with Moldova.

The World Health Organization sought to ease fears by saying the risk to humans in Europe remains “very low”.

“The crisis ... may seem more intense now because birds in Europe have become infected,” WHO spokesman Dick Thompson told reporters in Geneva.

“But the risk is pretty much the same as it has been, it is very low to humans, but we’re worried about the transformation of the virus into a human pandemic strain,” he added.

In Indonesia, fears fanned by the health minister about a possible human-to-human transmission eased after tests on a father and son hospitalized in Jakarta proved negative.

In its current form, humans need to be in prolonged close contact with an infected animal, usually in a confined space, to catch the disease.

Pressure on Roche
Amid growing fears about the spread of the virus, Tamiflu’s maker, Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche AG, has come under pressure to pump up output by any means possible. The company agreed on Thursday to meet four generic drug makers with a view to possible tie-ups.

Activists who put pressure on drugs companies to make AIDS treatments accessible in Africa urged Roche to renounce its rights on the drug in the developing world.

“Africa cannot afford to wait until Roche is done ’talking’: Act-Up Paris and African Essential Drug Network demand that Roche ... renounce all its exclusive rights on Tamiflu in developing countries,” the groups said in a joint statement.

Nevertheless, experts say Tamiflu, which is generically known as oseltamivir, cannot be regarded as a “cure-all” for H5N1 as it must be administered in the early stages of infection -- and will in some cases not work due to anti-viral resistance.

“There are lots of people who are given Tamiflu and it is not seen to be particularly effective,” the WHO’s Thompson said.

“We know from experience with this drug that it is most effective very shortly after symptoms develop.”

Hungary is also developing a vaccine against the strain which the government said has shown promising results.

'Very grave' winter looms
Countries across Europe and Africa are stepping up defenses against bird flu.

Britain announced plans on Friday to launch a national register of poultry businesses in order to help authorities to tackle any future outbreak of bird flu swiftly.

Senegal has halted poultry imports as a precaution to keep the virus out of the west African country. Egypt ordered airlines not to import live birds or bird products.

Poultry sales across Europe have tumbled even as authorities insist it is as safe to eat as ever.

The WHO says 61 people have now died of bird flu since the H5N1 strain resurfaced in 2003 after a brief outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997.