Bird flu mutation yet to increase risk to human health

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A new bird flu virus strain is unlikely to increase the risk to human health in Vietnam despite a warning last week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of a possible major resurgence of the contagious disease.

On August 29, FAO warned that the new mutant H5N1 virus strain (highly pathogenic avian influenza or bird flu virus) could spread throughout Asia and beyond.

The H5N1 virus has infected 565 people since it first appeared in 2003, killing 331 of them, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures.

So far, H5N1 has killed or forced the culling of more than 400 million domestic poultry and caused an estimated US$20 billion of economic damage across the globe before it was eliminated from most of the 63 countries infected at its peak in 2006, according to the FAO.

After Indonesia, Vietnam has recorded the highest number of human deaths from bird flu, with 59 since 2003, according to WHO data.

On Monday (September 5) however, FAO said the deadly bird flu virus detected in Vietnam does not appear to pose an increased risk to human health.

"The last human H5N1 cases in Vietnam were reported in April 2010, but none were caused by the new strain," the WHO and FAO told AFP in a joint statement.

"There is no evidence to suggest yet that this new virus strain will have any increased risk to human health," it said.

Vietnam has had an active control program against H5N1 avian influenza since the disease was first detected in 2003. 

The UN said this control program has been successful and cases of H5N1 in poultry and people have declined progressively and dramatically, but many challenges remain. 

"Nevertheless, poultry producers and the general public should always take simple precautions to reduce exposure to the virus from infected poultry," FAO said.

"These include extra vigilance for unusual poultry mortality, rapid reporting of disease to the authorities and good hygiene practices while handling, slaughtering and preparing poultry for consumption."

To reduce the threat of infections, changes must be made to the way farmers, traders and markets and slaughterhouses operate, it added.

"There is urgent need for adopting good poultry production practices, particularly in the small farming sector."

In a statement on H5N1 in Vietnam released by the UN this month, experts said the viruses will likely continue to persist and  pose a threat to the poultry industries, remaining a potential source of pandemic human influenza.

"It should be recognized that influenza viruses continuously evolve through mutation and re-assortments and that this is a natural process that requires on-going monitoring," the report said.

According to the UN, Vietnam is considered to be endemically infected with H5N1, with disease outbreaks being detected in a number of provinces across the country in 2011.

In northern and central Vietnam, the previous clade 2.3.4 virus has been completely replaced recently by clade 2.3.2.1, suggesting that repeated incursions of new infections are still occurring, it said.

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