WHO chief issues H5N1 warning amid new deaths

Jan 22, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Margaret Chan, the new head of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned today against relaxing the world's defenses against a potential influenza pandemic, as two more human deaths from H5N1 avian flu were confirmed, one in Egypt and one in Indonesia.

More deaths occurred in 2006 than in previous years combined, Chan said in her address to WHO's executive board, according to an Agence Presse-France (AFP) report. She added that the fatality rate for H5N1 avian influenza rose to 70% last year, 10 points higher than the average since the current series of outbreaks began in 2003.

"The message is straightforward: we must not let down our guard," Chan said.

The WHO confirmed today that a 27-year-old Egyptian woman from Beni Sweif governorate, about 62 miles south of Cairo, fell ill Jan 9 and died in the hospital Jan 19. Initial reports suggest there were sick and dead poultry in her home before she got sick. Egypt's health ministry first announced that she had tested positive for H5N1 on Jan 18. Egypt has now had 19human cases with 11 deaths.

Marking Indonesia's sixth H5N1 case this year, the WHO confirmed today that a 26-year-old woman from West Java province experienced avian flu symptoms on Jan 11 and died in the hospital 8 days later. (Some media reports listed her age as 19.) Investigators said the woman had been involved in slaughtering sick chickens before she became ill. Indonesia's H5N1 case count has reached 80, including 62 deaths.

Seven patients who are suspected of having avian flu are being treated in an isolation room at Hasan Sadikin Hospital in Bandung, the Jakarta Post reported today.

Chan voiced serious concern about the continued presence of H5N1 in birds as new outbreaks in poultry were reported in South Korea and Nigeria.

"As long as the virus continues to circulate in birds, the threat of a pandemic will persist. The world is years away from control in the agricultural sector," AFP quoted Chan as saying.

Countries with widespread outbreaks in poultry flocks have failed to eradicate the virus, despite "heroic efforts," Chan noted.

After Vietnam experienced about a year-long lull in poultry outbreaks, the virus returned to the Mekong Delta in early December and has since spread to at least 8 provinces. The country had been widely hailed by international avian flu experts for its mandatory poultry vaccination program and strict disease-control efforts.

Likewise, in South Korea avian flu returned to poultry farms in the towns of Iksan, Kimje, and Asan at the end of 2006 after a 3-year absence. Two days ago, South Korea's agriculture ministry told the Associated Press it was preparing to slaughter 273,000 chickens in a fresh outbreak detected at a chicken farm in Cheonan, about 60 miles south of Seoul.

In Nigeria, H5N1 avian flu has returned to poultry in Kano, the country's northern commercial capital, a state health official said today, according to an AFP report. Outbreaks have been confirmed on at least 7 poultry farms in the city over the past 2 months, Shehu Bawa, head of Kano's avian flu committee, told reporters.

Tests on birds from two other northern states, Katsina and Sokoto, are underway at the national Veterinary Research Institute in Jos, according to the AFP report. Nigeria had its first H5N1 avian flu outbreak in birds in 2006; no human cases have been recorded.

See also:

Jan 22 WHO statement on Egyptian avian flu death

Jan 22 WHO statement on Indonesian avian flu death

Jan 22 news release on WHO Executive Board meeting

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