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Vietnam: Bird Flu Transmission Suspected Between Humans

The latest spate of deaths from bird flu in Vietnam is raising fears that the disease is reemerging after last year's outbreak in ten Asian countries. This time, however, there is a more ominous concern: A new medical study reports a probable case of bird flu transmission between humans. VOA's Science Correspondent David McAlary has this report, narrated by Leta Hong Fincher.

A report in "The New England Journal of Medicine" documents a probable case of person-to-person transmission of the avian flu virus in Thailand. Most previous cases were traced to contact with infected poultry.

In this instance, investigators from the Thai Health Ministry and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say an 11-year-old girl died after exposure to a sick chicken, but her mother and aunt, who had no such bird exposure, also became ill, suggesting that human transmission occurred. The mother also died.

The president of the vaccine division of the big U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck, Adel Mahmoud, says the new report is a sign of the virus's potential to trigger a global flu outbreak. "That is just a very, very serious warning sign that viruses are recombining, moving from avian to animals to humans and then being transmitted within the human population," he said.

Public health experts are not concerned about limited person-to-person transmission of the bird flu virus. But their worst fear is that the virus may mutate into a more dangerous form.

The World Health Organization's representative in Hanoi, Hans Troedsson, says this would mean that the bird flu would spread much more easily among people. "The major concern we have is, of course, that the virus will change or alter, but we have no indication of that yet. The other concern we have would be a dramatic increase in the number of cases even if the virus has not changed, because that would put a lot of additional pressure on the existing health care services."

Scientists have found no evidence that the bird flu virus has mutated. But they warn in "The New England Journal of Medicine” that more cases of the virus spreading among humans are likely and the world should prepare for a future influenza pandemic.