Bird flu fears heighten following death of Chinese man

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
bird flu, H5N1, fatality, pandemic, mutation
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HONG KONG, CHINA - Following the death of a bird-flu-related death of a man in mainland Chinas, Hong Kong health officials placed the city on high alert and urged residents to take precautionary steps. The upsurge in bird flu fear occurred after Chinese authorities reported that preliminary tests revealed that a Shenzhen man, who died December 31, was infected with the deadly strain of the bird flu virus: H5N1. He was the first case to be reported in China after an 18 month hiatus.

On January 3, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection stated that the department is in close contact with its counterpart in mainland China and urged vigilance by Hong Kong residents to reduce the risk of more infections. On December 31, in order to reduce the risk of an outbreak, the government suspended imports of live poultry and poultry products from parts of neighboring Shenzhen for three weeks in a bid to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.

On January 3, Hong Kong officials reported that two migratory birds—in addition to the one that infected the Shenzhen man--were discovered dead in Hong Kong; they were found to be infected with the bird flu; however, further tests are required to determine whether it was H5N1 or the less dangerous H5 strain.

The incident in China falls on the heels of a December 20 report that US government officials requested researchers to not public details on their H5N1. Virologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands are currently working on research papers regarding their success in mutating the virus into more infectious strains that could more readily spread from person to person. The government expressed concern that the information—if it fell into the wrong hands could result in a bioterrorist attack.

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Throughout the globe, H5N1 has caused outbreaks in wild birds and poultry. It only occasionally infects humans who have close contact with infected poultry, particularly in parts of Southeast Asia. Over the past decade, it has infected almost 600 individuals in nations including China, Cambodia, Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq; 60% of those succumbed from the disease. The virus remains a threat primarily to poultry, not humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) stresses that there is no evidence of the virus's passing to humans through properly cooked poultry or eggs. Most of the individuals who were infected with H5N1 had contact with live birds or their droppings.

The recent studies on mutated, more infectious forms of H5N1 has increased concern that mutations in the H5N1 strain could occur in nature, without human intervention. Increased human-to-human spread could potentially cause a global pandemic.

The threat of a new epidemic is of major concern in Hong Kong--a densely populated city of seven million. Most residents vividly recall the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed approximately 300 Hong Kong residents as well as nearly 800 world-wide.

See Also:
H5N1 bird-flu virus: a bioterrorist risk
Bird flu death in China: Infection source unknown

Reference: Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection

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