Egyptian woman contracts bird flu virus - agency

CAIRO, April 17 (Reuters) - A 25-year-old Egyptian woman has contracted the highly pathogenic bird flu virus after coming into contact with infected birds, the latest case in a growing spate of infections in Egypt, state media said on Friday.

The new infection brings to 65 the number of bird flu cases in humans in the most populous Arab country, which has been hit harder by bird flu than any other country outside Asia.

The woman, from El-Marg on Cairo's outskirts, was in a critical condition on a ventilator after falling ill with a fever on April 11. She was being treated with the antiviral drug Tamiflu, state news agency MENA reported.

While H5N1 avian influenza virus rarely infects people, experts say they fear it could mutate into a form that people could easily pass to one another, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.

Since 2003, H5N1 has infected at least 411 people in 15 countries and killed 254. It has killed or forced the culling of more than 300 million birds in 61 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Egypt has seen a surge in cases in recent months, with 14 people confirmed to have contracted this virus since the start of the year compared to seven in the same period last year. Most of the new cases have been young children, a change from 2008.

Some 23 Egyptians have died after contracting the bird flu virus. Most of those infected had come into contact with infected domestic birds in a country where roughly 5 million households depend on domestically raised poultry as a significant source of food and income.

The World Health Organisation said this month it was concerned some Egyptians may carry the bird flu virus without showing symptoms, which could give it more of a chance to mutate to a strain that spreads easily among humans. The issue will be the subject of an Egyptian government study backed by WHO. (Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Angus MacSwan)