Bird flu cases among young children raise concerns

An 18-month-old child contracted the H5N1 bird flu virus on 10 March, bringing the number of human cases in Egypt to 58 since records began in 2006, and prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to ask for a study to be undertaken of the causes.



The child - from Manoufiya Province in northern Egypt - is one of several recent cases of young children to have contracted the deadly virus in a country where over five million families raise poultry for a living.



Egyptian Health Ministry spokesman Abdel Rahman Shahin told IRIN the girl exhibited symptoms of infection on 6 March after reported contact with infected birds. She was taken to hospital on 9 March and given the antiviral vaccine Tamiflu.



"Her case has stabilised but she will remain at the hospital for further check-ups," Shahin said.



The child’s case is the latest in a rapidly growing number of cases of child infection in Egypt, causing concern among WHO officials.



On 4 March, a two-year-old boy from the coastal city of Alexandria (220km from Cairo) contracted the virus. The boy is being treated with Tamiflu.



Another two-year-old boy from Fayum, 85km southwest of Cairo, was infected by the virus on 1 March, Nasr al-Sayyid, the assistant health minister, said.



According to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, five cases of bird flu have been registered in 2009; 23 people have died from the virus since records began in 2006.



The rapid growth rate of bird flu infections in children is worrying, said John Jabbour, senior epidemiologist with WHO, which is asking the Health Ministry to investigate why so many children aged 2-3 are being infected.



Jabbour speculated that the reason for the increased number of cases in this age group was that families were no longer as alert as immediately after the last awareness campaign.



He warned that families with poultry must be on their guard at all times, given UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warnings that the H5N1 strain was endemic in poultry.



"This is a problem that will not go away in poultry, hence people who deal with birds cannot afford to relax. Those who come in contact with birds must make caution part of their daily routine," he said.



Changing the mindset



Jabbour said social behaviour and attitudes also played a vital role in tackling bird flu. "We are not just fighting bird flu only; we are also trying to change the mentality which says reporting a case of bird flu infection in poultry will destroy income," he said.



Assistant Health Minister Sayyed said poultry keepers were often reluctant to report suspected cases for fear that health officials would cull not only their birds but those of neighbouring families.



Egypt does not run a compensation scheme for farmers who lose poultry in a cull.



According to the latest WHO statistics, some 410 people in 15 countries and regions have contracted the virus and 256 of them have died of the disease.



While H5N1 rarely infects people, experts fear it could mutate into a form that could easily be passed from one person to another, leading to a pandemic which could kill millions.



ma/ar/cb