6-Year-Old Chinese Boy Dies From Bird Flu

By Audra Ang | January 20, 2009 | 5:22 AM EST
Beijing (AP) - A 16-year-old boy infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus died Tuesday in central China, the country's third fatality from the disease this month.
Authorities also stepped up bird flu precautions on fears the virus can survive longer in cold weather as tens of millions of people travel between cities and rural hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which typically includes feasts with poultry.
The student surnamed Wu, who had been in critical condition, died Tuesday morning in Huaihua, a city in Hunan province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. He fell ill on Jan. 8 in his hometown in the neighboring province of Guizhou and was transferred to a hospital in Huaihua on Jan. 16, when his condition worsened.
He had contact with dead poultry, the report said, without giving other details.
The two other bird flu deaths were a 27-year-old woman in Shandong province in the country's east who died on Saturday and a 19-year-old woman who died in Beijing on Jan. 5.
Also Tuesday, a 2-year-old girl who had been critically ill with the H5N1 virus in Hunan was in stable condition and returned to her home in the north, China Central Television said in its noon newscast. The state television report said the girl had been to live poultry markets "many times" but did not elaborate.
The girl's mother died earlier this month from pneumonia after being exposed to poultry, a Hunan health bureau official said in an interview published Tuesday in the state-run China Business News newspaper. However, the official surnamed Peng could not confirm a link to H5N1.
Most bird flu cases stem from exposure to sick birds, but human-to-human transmission of bird flu has happened about a dozen times in the past in countries including China, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Turkey. In nearly every case, transmission has occurred among blood relatives who have been in close contact, and the virus has not spread into the wider community.
"Whenever there is a case of humans contracting the H5N1 virus, there is a concern," said Nyka Alexander, a Beijing-based spokeswoman for the World Health Organization. "As long as H5N1 continues to circulate in poultry, there is the risk of human infection. This is why it is so important to treat each case seriously."
While the disease remains hard for humans to catch, scientists have warned if outbreaks among poultry are not controlled, the virus may mutate into a form more easily passed between people. A new influenza virus could quickly turn into a pandemic, infecting millions of people with no immunity.
No sick poultry has been found in the areas where the four people fell ill this year, despite officials inspecting hundreds of thousands of birds. This could mean that surveillance needs to be tightened or that poultry may be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms or falling sick. Vaccinations also reduce the amount of virus circulating, but low levels of H5N1 may still be causing outbreaks -- without the obvious signs of dying birds.
Until this month, no new human cases had been reported in China since February 2007. Shu Yuelong, a flu expert at China's National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said a spike in infections was likely because the H5N1 virus is more active in lower temperatures.
The cases come as an estimated 188 million people travel between cities and rural hometowns for Lunar New Year, the country's biggest holiday, which begins next week.
Celebratory family meals often include dishes made from freshly slaughtered chicken and duck feature, meaning a potentially greater risk of exposure to sick birds as people shop in markets for poultry or when the birds are transported to be sold.
The Agriculture Ministry has ordered tighter monitoring of disease outbreaks at all levels and proper vaccination of all poultry. It would also increase checks across the country and at borders.
According to the WHO, bird flu has killed 249 people worldwide since 2003. The tally does not include Tuesday's death in China, where a total of 34 infections have been reported.
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