Friday, August 03, 2007

Times Of India Asks : Is Bird Flu Now Spreading Between Humans?

Four Children From Same Family Sick, Under Observation

Like most countries that suffer poultry outbreaks of H5N1, medical authorities in India are extremely nervous about the possibility of the virus infecting and then spreading between humans. Internationally, the World Health Organisation is terrified. The crowded cities and numerous slums of India provide the perfect environment for a widespread, or pandemic, outbreak of human bird flu.

Four young children from the same family are now sick, on Tamiflu and under observation. Confirmation that all four children have the bird flu virus is pending.

So it is not surprising then that the Times Of India asks today - Is Bird Flu Infecting Humans?

Four children, all under 14 years, from a farm in Chingmeirong village in Manipur have been quarantined and administered Tamiflu, the most affective antibiotic against bird flu, after investigations revealed that they had handled dead poultry in their farm, soon after the disease was detected in dead chickens from a nearby farm.

All of them, part of the same household, were found suffering from fever and throat infection by health officials carrying out door-to-door surveillance on humans, within the 5-km radius of this year's bird flu outbreak site. The throat swabs of the four children have been sent to National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Delhi and National Institute of Virology, Pune, for testing.

Till now, all those who have been infected in bird-flu outbreaks across the globe have actually been poultry workers who came in contact with infected birds.

The WHO says, globally at least 192 people have died due to bird flu out of 319 cases since 2003. The next 24 hours will be a nervous wait for the government and India's health experts as results of these tests are expected on Friday morning.

India has not reported a single human infection with the H5N1 virus till now. What's worrying the health ministry officials most is the fact that they don't know whether the chicken that died in the farm of these four teenagers had been infected with H5N1 or not.

This is because soon after the government announced the outbreak, the four sold off their stock of 120 birds to a nearby hotel owner. So, the scientists failed to collect samples of these birds.

Interestingly, the teenagers also confessed to health officials of having eaten some of the dead chickens. Chicken cooked at over 70 degrees Celsius is safe as the virus gets killed.

On July 25, India's department of animal husbandry announced that the deadly virus had returned to haunt India for the second year in a row, with this year's outbreak being reported from a small poultry farm in Chingmeirong village of East Imphal district in Manipur.

The Times of India makes a basic, and remarkable, mistake in its reporting :
Till now, all those who have been infected in bird-flu outbreaks across the globe have actually been poultry workers who came in contact with infected birds.
This simply isn't true. The virus has been caught by humans from infected birds sitting on windowsills (Indonesia), from eating infected chicken meat (Vietnam) and from infected birds in crowded public markets (Egypt).

Was this "only poultry workers" mistake by the journalist just bad research, or were they told this as a fact by the Indian authorities?

For the authorities in India, and for the H5N1 specialists in the World Health Organisation, the next day or two of waiting to find out if the four children have H5N1 are going to be long and nerve-wracking.

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