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WHO Investigation Indicates Bird Flu Mutated in Indonesia


The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined the deadly H5N1 virus changed slightly among cases in Indonesia last month, but health officials say it is not more contagious than previous versions of the disease. A group of more than 40 scientists and health officials from around the world convened in Indonesia this week.

Indonesia has seen the largest number of new infections in the world this year. During the month of May, one person died from the H5N1 virus in Indonesia every two and a half days, bringing the total number of deaths to 39 since 2003. The rising number of infections has worried the world health community, who are concerned bird flu may become a human pandemic, endangering the lives of millions of people around the globe.

In one cluster of cases last month, eight family members contracted the disease, seven died. During a three-day bird flu conference in Jakarta this week, World Health Organization officials said in the family, a 10-year-old boy passed a slightly mutated H5N1 virus to his father. Health officials say that form of the virus was not passed on outside the family, and died out with its last victim.

Keiji Fukuda is the coordinator with the WHO's Global Influenza Program. He downplays the appearance of human-to-human cases, saying there is no cause to raise the pandemic alert level.

"Right now we are very lucky that the virus remains a rare infection in humans," he said. "We hope it stays that way forever, in fact we hope it becomes less infectious. But in the meantime, our struggle is not really to guess what is the virus going do, our real struggle is to get on with how prepare ourselves, how do we make ourselves stronger in the case that it does evolve."

The conference was aimed at improving Indonesia's prevention efforts.

The group released a list of recommendations that included better communication among animal and human health offices, and called for speedier dissemination of information to the public.

Fukuda says in a country with 17,000 islands, the public health department is up against a host of challenges.

"You know there has been a lot of criticism of Indonesia, but when you actually sit down and say what is being done, it's quite amazing," he added. "There's a lot of things being done, when in the meantime on a daily basis, you know it's dealing with HIV, it's dealing with TB, it's dealing with earthquakes, all these things have to be dealt with simultaneously and so you just see the immense complexity and the resource needs for any country, but particularly Indonesia."

Indonesia has asked the international community for $900 million to fight the spread of the disease, but claims to have just over $50 million available in the budget for prevention measures.

The group's report will be used in part to gather funding from international donors.

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