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Fear of next pandemic as bird flu spreads

By Chukwuma Muanya
23 March 2023   |   5:27 am
There are concerns that another pandemic is on the prowl as bird flu spreads and virus appears to be spreading between humans, after fears killer virus was behind cluster of cases in Cambodia.

Bird flu-infested fowl

•Concerns as virus appear to be spreading between humans, after fears killer disease was behind cluster of cases in Cambodia

There are concerns that another pandemic is on the prowl as bird flu spreads and virus appears to be spreading between humans, after fears killer virus was behind cluster of cases in Cambodia.

Fears of another viral pandemic were ramped up last week after tests revealed the father of an 11-year-old girl who died from bird flu in the Southeast Asian nation had also got infected.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is “really concerned” the current bird flu outbreak may now be spreading between people for the first time in more than 25 years.

The WHO has ordered a new bird flu vaccine to be made in response to the rapid spread of the strain of H5N1 avian influenza causing the current outbreak.

An 11-year-old girl died of bird flu in Cambodia this week, while her father is also infected and 11 others are under observation, with some showing symptoms. Experts are worried the large cluster might mean that the virus has now evolved to be able to be passed from one human to another. While captive and wild birds have been decimated worldwide by the current H5N1 strain there has so far been no evidence that it can pass between mammals.

If the virus has been able to cross the species gap from birds to humans then concern around bird flu and its potential to cause a pandemic will escalate.

No sustained transmission of bird flu has ever occurred but limited human-to-human transmission was reported in Hong Kong in 1997. WHO director of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention, Dr. Sylvie Briand, said that the Cambodian outbreak was causing more alarm than isolated cases that have popped up in the intervening two decades.

“When you have only one case, you imagine that it’s because this case was exposed to animals, either alive or dead. So for us, it means it is a zoonotic infection,” she said, in a statement.

“But when you see that there are a number of potential cases surrounding this initial case, you always wonder what has happened. Is it because maybe the initial case has transmitted the disease to other humans?

“And so we are really concerned about the potential human-to-human transmission coming from this initial spillover from animals. “This is currently the investigation that is ongoing in the contacts of this girl in Cambodia. We are first trying to see if those contacts have H5N1 infection and that’s why we are waiting for the laboratory confirmation of those cases.

“Secondly, once we have this confirmation, we will try to understand if those people have been exposed to animals or if those people have been contaminated by the initial case.”

Meanwhile, officials believe bird flu does not appear to be spreading between humans in Cambodia. But health chiefs on the ground now say that outcome is ‘unlikely’.

Cambodia’s Health Secretary, Or Vandine, added, however, that the possibility can’t yet be definitively ruled out. She said, according to Bloomberg that we should ‘wait’ for the conclusion of experts probing how the unidentified father was struck down.

It is possible the 49-year-old, from the Prey Veng province, also handled infected birds. That is how his young daughter, who wasn’t identified, is thought to have got ill. She was Cambodia’s first human case since 2014.

The man — who never displayed any symptoms but was tested as part of precautionary measures — is now negative. None of the 29 others who were also swabbed for the highly pathogenic virus were infected, results showed.

The young girl who died from the H5N1 strain became the world’s first bird flu victim of 2023, and the first case in Cambodia since 2014. Preliminary testing in Cambodia has dispelled fears that the cases were a new strain of H5N1, too.

The strain — which has a human mortality rate of around 50 per cent — has caused record numbers of deaths among wild birds and domestic poultry over the past 18 months.

The pathogen has already jumped from birds to mammals, sparking fears that it is now one step closer to spreading in humans — a hurdle which has so far stopped it from triggering a pandemic.

Only eight human cases have been spotted across the link among people so far this outbreak, all of which were traced back to close contact with infected birds. But the virus that infected the Cambodian pair was identified as an older strain of bird flu.

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