Kuwait reported the first known case of deadly bird flu in the Persian Gulf region on Friday, saying a culled flamingo was carrying the same strain of the H5N1 virus that has killed more than 60 people in Asia.
Kuwait, like other countries in the region, has banned imports of live poultry and birds from avian flu-stricken areas of Asia, but experts said they had expected migratory birds like the flamingo to bring the virus to the Middle East.
Kuwait announced the discovery of two bird flu cases on Thursday but officials were not able to say until now whether they were dealing with the more dangerous strain of the virus.
“The H5N1 (case) was highly pathogenic,” Mohammad Muhanna, an official at Kuwait’s agriculture authority, told Reuters.
There are two forms of H5N1, the second being the low pathogenic strain which experts say is not known to have jumped species into humans.
Agriculture inspectors found the flamingo carrying H5N1, a few days ago on Kuwait’s southern coast.
An earlier case was discovered a few weeks ago at Kuwait airport in a shipment of exotic birds imported from Asia. The whole shipment was culled but the virus found was the H5N2 strain that is dangerous to birds but less virulent than H5N1.
“It is certainly what was expected,” World Health Organization spokesman Dick Thompson said in Geneva.
“The Middle East and Africa are on the flyways (of migratory birds), and the FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) has said that they expected to see H5N1 in those areas.”
Experts fear H5N1, carried around the world by migratory birds, could mutate into a form that passes easily among people, just like human influenza. If it does, millions could die because they would have no immunity.
On Thursday, Ahmad al-Shatti, a member of the Kuwait national commission on bird flu, said no mutation was detected in either of the Kuwaiti cases.
Kuwait, a major oil exporter, has taken several precautions against bird flu including allocating 5.4 million dinars ($18.5 million) to purchase drugs for its 2.7 million people.
Officials said all humans who came in contact with the diseased birds had tested negative.