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Cambodia Investigates Possible Bird Flu Outbreak

The Pasteur Institute in Ho Chi Minh City said Tuesday that a 24-year-old Cambodian woman tested positive for the bird flu virus. The woman had traveled from her home in the southern border province of Kampot to seek treatment in Vietnam, where she died on Sunday.

Cambodian Minister of Health Nuth Sokhum traveled with World Health Organization medical advisor Paul Weelen to Kampot on Wednesday to assess the situation. Health and agriculture department teams sprayed homes in the woman's village with disinfectant and killed 37 chickens.

An official at the Health Ministry's Disease Surveillance Bureau says the government is waiting to see if the WHO confirms that there is an outbreak of the H5N1 virus. Until then, the government considers Cambodia to be free of the disease.

WHO epidemiologist Dr. Megge Miller says the agency is testing samples from the victim. "Yesterday, they released the result, saying that she was positive for avian influenza virus H5. At the moment, we haven't had full confirmation that it is actually bird flu, for it to be bird flu it has to be avian influenza H5N1," he said. "At the moment we don't know about the N part yet."

The victim's brother died 10 days before her, suffering from similar symptoms, but it is not clear if he had the avian virus. Seven of the woman's relatives also are being tested for H5N1.

Bird flu has killed at least 45 people in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam since December 2003.

The virus forced the culling of millions of chickens and ducks last year in Asia. So far, most human victims have acquired the disease from infected birds.

Health experts around the world, however, fear the virus could change to spread easily from person to person. That could have lethal consequences, since the avian flu has killed about two thirds of human victims. The concern is particularly high for impoverished countries such as Cambodia, which are only beginning to learn how to respond to the virus and which have inadequate health care systems.