Cases suggest bird flu moving more readily among humans


Six family members in Indonesia who died of bird flu most likely infected one another with the virus, rather than contracting it from birds, raising the possibility that the virus might be becoming more efficient in spreading among humans.

Officials from the World Health Organization stressed that the family members contracted the disease through close contact with one another, and there is no evidence it has the ability to spark a quick-spreading pandemic.

But the cluster of deaths in Kubu Sembelang village in North Sumatra worried officials because it involved a human chain of infection. One person appears to have passed the infection to a second person, who then passed it independently to a third, said WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng.

Previous human-to-human cases of the bird flu have involved only a single link in the chain in which the virus jumps from an infected bird to a human to another human.

The deaths in Indonesia are the largest cluster of human cases since the bird flu outbreak began in 1997,

"This certainly raised an alarm," said Dr. Christian Sandrock, an infectious disease and pulmonary critical care specialist at the University of California, Davis.

He said the chain of infections suggests the virus might be hardier in the human body than previously thought.

The WHO said today it was continuing its investigation of the Indonesian deaths and had no immediate plans to raise its pandemic alert level.

So far, 124 people have died from, and 218 people have been infected by, a strain of bird flu known as H5N1.

Most of these cases resulted from close contact between people and birds.

The first member of the Indonesian family who contracted the disease was a 37-year-old woman who likely picked up the virus while working at a market where there was poultry, Cheng said.

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