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Nightmare Bird Flu Scenario Comes True In Vietnam

Nightmare Bird Flu Scenario Comes True In Vietnam

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The first nightmare scenario cases of human-to-human infection of fatal bird flu may have killed two sisters in Vietnam, but the odds are still against an epidemic among people, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO).

Vegetarian meals, meanwhile, may be a good choice for worried people in Asian countries where "the virus is spreading rather easily and quickly" among chickens and other poultry, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggested.

At least 12 people died after contact with birds carrying the avian virus including Vietnam's ninth victim -- an 18-year-old male from the chilly Central Highlands who succumbed to the disease on Monday (Feb. 2), Vietnamese officials said.

The dead also include three people in Thailand, where a 58-year-old Thai woman who recently perished became the latest confirmed case, Thai health officials said on Monday.

At least 10 of the 12 victims apparently caught the virus directly from handling diseased birds or being in close proximity to their excrement or farms.

But in Vietnam, two of the dead may be the first cases of direct transmission from an infected person.

The two Vietnamese sisters, aged 23 and 30, died in Vietnam on Jan. 23 and may have contracted the mutating virus from their brother, who previously succumbed to a suspected case of bird flu.

"The occurrence of two deaths -- among sisters to a previous death -- have been confirmed through the WHO laboratory network, and in the investigations done in Vietnam so far we have had no information that these cases had been in contact with live poultry," Dr. Bjorn Melgaard, WHO's Bangkok-based head of mission, said in a recorded interview.

Their brother's body was cremated before medical tests could confirm his illness.

"They [the sisters] died from avian flu," Dr. Melgaard said.

"Investigations have not been able to identify their [the sisters'] exposure to a sick animal, or a sick bird," he said.

"The brother who died previously may have infected them," Dr. Melgaard added.

International health officials had feared if the virus mutated to human-to-human capability, it would probably be too new for vaccines or other anti-viral drugs to stop, and countless people could die in an epidemic similar to historic plagues which killed millions.

But Dr. Melgaard said despite the possibility of a deadly, human-to-human viral mutation in Vietnam, no widespread epidemic among the public was immediately feared.

"I don't think that this would mean a significant change in the perspective we have on this epidemic in terms of the avian virus, the one that we are currently dealing with, exploding into a major epidemic" among humans, Dr. Melgaard said.

Bird flu "is probably not that strong" of a threat to people because in Asia, excluding China, "forty-six million chickens have died of this disease [but] we may have 30, 40, 50 cases in humans" who contracted it from sick birds.

Those 30 to 50 victims of bird-to-human infection include cases which did not result in death and are "certainly a very small number compared to the widespread epidemic in chickens," he said.

Many more human-to-human cases would need to be confirmed before an epidemic among people became a possible danger.

Asked about what food people should eat meanwhile if they are worried about infected chicken and other diseased meat, Hans Wagner, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative, suggested with a grin: "Vegetarian."

"The fact is the virus is spreading rather easily and quickly" among chickens, said Mr. Wagner, FAO's Bangkok-based Senior Regional Animal Production and Health Officer, in recorded remarks to reporters.

"The disease is highly contagious and it kills the birds immediately or within two days," Mr. Wagner said.

** ### **

- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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