Fears of human bird flu cases rise in India's Assam

GUWAHATI, India Fri Dec 12, 2008 1:36pm EST

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GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - India is sending bird flu experts to the northeastern state of Assam and setting up isolation units to treat up to 90 people showing signs of the virus, health authorities said on Friday.

Health workers have yet to confirm any human cases of H5N1, but they said some patients were suffering from fever and respiratory infections, which are symptoms of the virus in humans.

Veterinary officials in Assam state, which is rich in tea and oil, have slaughtered more than 250,000 chickens and ducks in the past two weeks, after the virus was detected in poultry last month in a village close to Guwahati, the region's main city.

New Delhi has rushed federal medical experts, including epidemiologists and microbiologists, to the affected areas.

"We have set up isolation facilities to treat those patients," Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam's health minister, said.

"So far none of the patients has a history of contact with infected poultry, but we are taking no chances. If the disease is transmitted to humans it will be a big disaster," Sarma said.

The medical teams brought supplies of equipment as a preventative measure in case the virus spreads to humans, including 10,000 Tamiflu capsules, 6,000 surgical masks and two ventilators.

Experts suspect the disease was carried by migratory birds who are immune to the virus.

Officials said poultry owners took advantage of a shortage of trained health workers and hid their stock to evade culling and seizure, further complicating the situation.

Another 150,000 chickens and ducks will be culled over the next two days, said a senior veterinary official in the state capital Dispur who did not want to be named.

While no human cases have been reported in India, experts fear the H5N1 virus might mutate or combine with the highly contagious seasonal influenza virus and spark a pandemic that could kill millions of people.

Since the virus resurfaced in Asia in 2003, it has killed more than 200 people in a dozen countries, the World Health Organization says.

The WHO described the January outbreak of bird flu in neighboring West Bengal state, when more than 4 million birds were culled, as the worst ever in India.

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