Avian flu strain claims human victim

The threat posed by avian flu is once again on the risk radar after an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died from a strain in the country’s first known human H5N1 infection since 2014, according to health officials.

Avian influenza normally spreads in poultry and was not deemed a threat to people until a 1997 outbreak among visitors to live poultry markets in Hong Kong.

Most human cases worldwide have involved direct contact with infected poultry, but concerns have arisen recently about infections in a variety of mammals and the possibility the virus could evolve to spread more easily between people.

The girl, from the rural south-eastern province of Prey Veng, became ill on 16 February and was sent to be treated at a hospital in the capital Phnom Penh. 

She was diagnosed on Wednesday after suffering a fever up to 39C with coughing and throat pain and died shortly afterwards, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Health officials have taken samples from a dead wild bird at a conservation area near the girl’s home, the ministry added.

It said teams in the area would also warn residents about touching dead and sick birds.

Cambodian health minister Mam Bunheng warned that bird flu poses an especially high risk to children who may be feeding or collecting eggs from domesticated poultry, playing with the birds or cleaning their cages.

Symptoms of H5N1 infection are similar to those of other flus, including a cough, aches and fever, and in serious cases patients can develop life-threatening pneumonia.

Cambodia had 56 human cases of H5N1 from 2003 through to 2014 and 37 of them were fatal, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Globally, about 870 human infections and 457 deaths have been reported to the WHO in 21 countries.

Earlier in the month World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern about avian influenza infections in mammals including minks, otters, foxes and sea lions.

“H5N1 has spread widely in wild birds and poultry for 25 years, but the recent spillover to mammals needs to be monitored closely,” he warned.

In January, a nine-year-old girl in Ecuador became the first reported case of human infection in Latin America and the Caribbean. She was treated with antiviral medicine.

Tedros added that the WHO still assesses the risk from bird flu to humans as low. “But we cannot assume that will remain the case, and we must prepare for any change in the status quo,” he said.