- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The World Health Organization has detailed the first evidence that the deadly bird-flu virus mutated and spread from person to person within a family, but specialists said yesterday the genetic change does not increase the threat of a pandemic.

The investigation said the H5N1 mutation occurred in a 10-year-old Indonesian boy who was part of the largest cluster ever reported. The first case in the family, a woman, is thought to have been infected by poultry. She then likely passed the virus to the boy and five other blood relatives.

The boy is then thought to have infected his father, whose samples showed the same mutation, according to the WHO report. Only one infected family member survived.

“It stopped. It was dead end at that point,” said Tim Uyeki, an epidemiologist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Uyeki, who was part of the investigating team, stressed that viruses are always changing, and there was no reason for this mutation to raise alarm because the virus has not developed the ability to spread easily among people.

U.N. bird-flu chief David Nabarro said the findings emphasized the importance of continuous monitoring of the H5N1 virus in both humans and poultry.

“We were fortunate in that the change that took place did not result in sustained human-to-human transmission,” he said by telephone yesterday. “This is a vivid reminder of the need to keep a very close watch on what the virus is doing.”

Specialists fear the H5N1 virus could eventually mutate into a highly contagious form that spreads easily among people, sparking a global pandemic. The current virus remains hard for people to catch, and most human cases have been traced to contact with sick birds. Scientists think limited human-to-human transmission has occurred in a handful of other clusters, all of which involved close contact.

The WHO report was distributed during a three-day meeting in Jakarta attended by some of the world’s top bird-flu specialists. Indonesian officials called the closed-door session to ask for help in coping with the virus, which has infected more people in Indonesia this year than anywhere else — killing an average of one person every 2 days last month.

Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s coordinator for the Global Influenza Program in Geneva, said the cluster in Indonesia last month drew international attention because of its size.

“What we’re really looking for is the kind of human-to-human transmission which can cause large neighborhood outbreaks and big community outbreaks,” he said. The virus in Sumatra island did not spread beyond the eight blood relatives.

Indonesia’s Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie reiterated that the government needs $900 million over the next three years to fight bird flu, which is entrenched in poultry stocks across the archipelago of 220 million people.

The virus has killed at least 130 persons worldwide since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003. Indonesia has had 39 deaths, second to Vietnam, where 42 persons have died.

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