International health experts are investigating Pakistan’s first outbreak of bird flu in people, to conclude if the virus was transmitted through human-to-human contact.
World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl reported suspicions that four brothers â€” two of whom died â€” and two cousins were infected by the H5N1 virus, in the small city of Abbotabad, north of Islamabad. Hatl also reported that a man and his niece from the same area, who slaughtered chickens, were suspected of having the virus.
Details of the cases remain unclear. Pakistan’s Health Ministry said that six people had initially tested positive for the virus last month, while the WHO said eight infections were reported.
According to Hartle, the difference in numbers was possibly due to a technicality – as the six patients tested positive with an internationally recommended method while a less reliable test was used on the other people.
Hartl stated that four WHO experts have been sent to Pakistan to help determine the cause, and that all four brothers were believed to have worked on a farm where H5N1 outbreaks had been reported in poultry in the area. One brother, Mohammed Tariq, said only one sibling worked on the farm.
WHO has not ruled out limited human-to-human transmission. “It’s possible,” said Hartl.
WHO said that the H5N1 virus has killed at least 208 people worldwide, mostly in Southeast Asia and China, since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003. So far, most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds.
“I was not aware that this was such a dangerous disease,” said Mohammed Ishtiaq, a veterinary doctor who works for a government-funded livestock programme.
People who came into contact with those infected in Pakistan are being monitored, WHO said.