The World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed concern on February 24 after the father of an 11-year-old Cambodian girl who died from bird flu tested positive, raising fears of human-to-human transmission. The case is the first known instance of bird flu among humans in Cambodia since 2014.
The virus spreads typically in poultry, but it has recently started to infect various mammals, including foxes and otters. This has raised concerns that the virus could mutate and become more transmissible among people.
WHO epidemic and pandemic preparedness director Sylvie Briand said the situation was “worrying,” The agency is reviewing its global risk assessment in light of the recent rise in cases, Reuters reported on February 25. The WHO last assessed the risk to humans as low earlier this month, but she added that it would be updated if more evidence is found.
According to WHO, the H5N1 strain of bird flu is causing a global outbreak in birds and mammals, with the virus infected tens of thousands of wild birds over the past year. But the WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had previously ruled out that it threatened people.
But in a statement, the WHO urged all countries to take bird flu seriously and urge heightened vigilance. It is a lethal disease, killing 56 percent of those it infects.
However, it is unclear whether the girl’s father was infected directly by his daughter or if birds infected him in the area where she lived. Eleven other close contacts of the girl have also been tested and are waiting to hear their results, according to the WHO.
Cambodia’s Health Minister Mam Bunheng has urged parents to keep their children away from sick or dead birds and said officials were collecting samples of dead birds around her village. In a statement, she said:
While the girl and her father were not diagnosed with avian influenza, they were both in contact with dead and infected birds while staying in a house in Prey Veng province, east of Phnom Penh. The WHO said it had collected samples from 12 people in their household who were in contact with the girl, including her brother and mother.
WHO has stepped up its efforts to detect the virus in birds, which it believes are a good indicator of the presence of the disease in humans. In addition, the UN agency is working to develop new antivirals to treat the illness.
The WHO has been in talks with manufacturers to help them quickly scale up these antivirals production. Eventually, it hopes to have a vaccine ready to use.
Symptoms of the disease can include fever, cough, and headache. If the infection is severe, it can cause pneumonia.
A high fatality rate and a lack of available antivirals mean it is difficult to treat people infected with the H5N1 virus, WHO says. A vaccine would help prevent the virus from spreading and reduce the number of deaths.