Scientists in China say they have discovered a highly virulent strain of bird flu virus in pigs. An official at the China National Avian Flu Reference Laboratory said the H5N1 virus strain had been found in pigs at several farms in the country. More than 20 people died and almost 200 million birds were culled during a flu epidemic in Asia earlier this year.
The spread to pigs has yet to be confirmed, but there could be serious implications for human health if it is. The World Health Organization said that if the pigs were harbouring both bird and human flu viruses, the two strains could interact to create a strain capable of transferring easily to humans, informs BBC News.
"The fear always is that this will jump to mammals," Chen Hualan, chief bird flu researcher at the Harbin laboratory, said at a conference in Beijing on the disease. Lab workers have been able to infect mice with the lethal strain of bird flu called H5N1, Chen said. She said researchers earlier found a milder strain of bird flu in pigs. But "the mechanisms for the H5N1 virus to cross the species barrier and infect and kill mammals are still unknown," she said.
Malaysia this week became the latest country to report bird flu in poultry and has gone on nationwide alert against the disease. Bird flu "is not very good at jumping from animals to humans at this point in time, but it can do so," said Dr. Julie Hall, a World Health Organization expert in Beijing. "It is very important that we prepare for that eventuality.", informs Grand Forks Herald. News.
According to Reuters, a teenager from the village at the center of the Malaysian outbreak had been taken to hospital with cold symptoms but officials said there was no indication from initial tests that she had contracted the bird flu virus.
Malaysia's poultry industry faces huge losses as export markets close and livestock prices fall. And restaurants specializing in chicken dishes in the capital Kuala Lumpur had noticeably fewer customers on Friday. A total of 15 outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian flu have been reported since 1950, five of them big, said Dr. Klaus Stohr of the Department of Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response under the WHO Global Influenza Program.
"The one this year is even bigger. What we are seeing is completely unprecedented," Stohr told Reuters on the sidelines of the Beijing symposium. "The probability of the continuation of the outbreak is relatively high. The virus appears endemic, with a foothold in domesticated bird populations."
In rallying to stem the spread of the disease, many Asian countries could look to China as a model, health experts said.
China has had success in controlling outbreaks of bird flu, mostly in its southern provinces, despite being the world's most populous country in terms of both humans and poultry. China has vaccinated more than 11 million birds and culled 8 million to rein in outbreaks that have infected 150,000 birds and killed 120,000 this year, Chen Hualan said.
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