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WHO Confirms Another Bird Flu Death in Egypt

The World Health Organization confirmed today an Egyptian teenager died from the avian flu, the country's 12th fatality from the H5N1 strain. Leslie Boctor has more for VOA from Cairo.

The 17-year-old from Fayoum, a small city south of Cairo, died after struggling with flu-like symptoms for nearly three weeks. She is believed to have been infected after coming into contact with sick or dead birds at her home.

The disease has struck hard at women and young girls - 11 of Egypt's 12 fatalities have been female. Women are often responsible for looking after backyard poultry farms.

The World Health Organization has reported that two people who died from the avian flu had been infected with a mutated strain of the virus, and showed moderate resistance to the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu. Health officials are investigating whether the latest case of avian flu showed signs of mutation.

The WHO regional advisor for communicable diseases, Hassan el-Bushra, says the best-case scenario would be that the mutation has disappeared.

"We hope that the mutation just died with those two cases and disappeared,"el-Bushra says. "We are worried because that could reduce the efficacy of one the most important drugs that we have."

The latest death is the country's fifth bird-flu fatality in six weeks. With 20 known cases, Egypt has the largest cluster of avian flu cases outside Asia. Three fatalities in Egypt came from one family.

Bushra says cramped living conditions, combined with illiteracy and poverty are contributing to the high incidents of cases in Egypt.

"There is a problem here,"el-Bushra says. "It is an element of behavior and in a country where there are more than 70 million people, some of them are poor and illiterate, you can expect some of them to misbehave, and they still continue to expose themselves to the virus or dead poultry."

Bushra says many of the poor are simply unable to separate their poultry flocks from the living quarters because of lack of space.

He says the high rate of reported cases in Egypt has caused the whole region to reconsider its response to the outbreak.

"It is ringing a bell, a very loud bell. Other countries now are revisiting their national preparedness plans and they are asking for some kind of review,"el-Bushra says.

Egypt will host a conference at the end of February with Ministers of Health from across the Middle East to discuss a region-wide response.