- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

12:26 p.m.

GENEVA — An Indonesian family infected with bird flu may have passed the disease among themselves rather than catching it individually from poultry, but the World Health Organization is leaving its pandemic alert level unchanged, the agency said today.

Six of seven people in the extended family in northern Sumatra who caught the disease have died, the most recent on Monday. An eighth person, who died, was buried before tests could be conducted, but she was considered to be among those infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu.

WHO is investigating whether the strain was spread among family members, although it said today there was no evidence the virus had mutated to a form that would spread more easily between humans, possibly sparking a pandemic.

“We haven’t seen evidence from Indonesia that the disease is passing easily from human to human,” WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said.

The agency’s alert level remained at three, where it has been for months. That means there is “no or very limited human-to-human transmission.”

Miss Cheng said it was unlikely the agency would raise the alert level in the immediate future.

“All confirmed cases in the cluster can be directly linked to close and prolonged exposure to a patient during a phase of severe illness,” a WHO statement said. “Although human-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out, the search for a possible alternative source of exposure is continuing.”

Miss Cheng said WHO had considered convening a meeting of experts to debate whether to raise the alert level but had decided that the current situation did not merit that step.

“We had discussed that,” she said, “but that is not going to happen.”

The agency has suspected that in rare cases, bird flu may have passed from one person to another, but it usually has been caught by people from chickens and other poultry.

WHO said that testing indicated there had been no significant mutations in the virus. Experts have feared that a mutation of the virus into a strain that could pass easily among humans could set off a deadly flu pandemic.

According to WHO, 218 people have been confirmed to have been infected with bird flu since 2003 and 124 of them have died.

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