Human-to-human bird flu transmission possible in Indonesia

A family of eight people infected with bird flu in Indonesia may have passed the disease among themselves rather than catching it from poultry, the World Health Organization said.

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

The agency did not immediately indicate whether it was raising its alert level, which remained early Wednesday at 3 where it has been for months. That means there is "no or very limited human-to-human transmission."

The agency has suspected that in rare cases bird flu may have passed from humans to humans, 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 easily pass among humans could set off a deadly flu pandemic.

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

The agency said the Indonesian Health Ministry had confirmed a man who died May 22 had been infected with the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.

He was the seventh member of an extended family confirmed to have become infected. An eighth person in the family, who died of similar symptoms May 4, was buried before tissue samples could be taken, so the cause of death could not be determined, but she is assumed to be part of the cluster, WHO said.

The family lives in the Kubu Sembelang village, Karo District, of North Sumatra.

"The newly confirmed case is a brother of the initial case," WHO said. "Specimens were taken on 21 May and flown the same day to Jakarta. Tests run overnight confirmed his infection. His 10-year-old son died of H5N1 infection on 13 May. The father was closely involved in caring for his son, and this contact is considered a possible source of infection,"reports the AP.

I.L.