BEIJING/HONGKONG (Reuters) - A 19-year-old woman has died of the H5N1 bird flu virus in Beijing after coming into contact with poultry, health authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong said on Tuesday.
This human H5N1 case would be China’s first in almost a year. Experts said while the case was not unexpected as the virus is more active during the cooler months between October and March, it points to holes in surveillance of the virus in poultry.
With the world’s biggest poultry population and hundreds of millions of farmers raising birds in their backyards, China is seen as crucial in the global fight against bird flu.
“The woman fell ill on December 24, was hospitalized on December 27 and died on Monday (at) 7.20 am,” the Beijing Municipal Bureau said in a faxed statement.
Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection said the woman had had contact with poultry before falling ill.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency earlier reported that the woman from eastern Fujian province had bought nine ducks at a market in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, and then gutted the birds.
She gave three ducks to her father, uncle and a friend and kept the other six ducks, the agency reported.
It added that 116 people, including the patient’s 14 family members and neighbor and 102 medical workers, had been in close contact with the patient.
“In many parts of the world, human H5N1 cases are due to contact with infected poultry. A human case would confirm that there is poultry infection somewhere in the vicinity,” said a virologist in Hong Kong who declined to be identified.
“It means that there are some leaks in surveillance in the poultry side (in China),” he said.
“Of course, we are approaching Chinese New Year and there is an increase in production, movement in poultry. That’s why there’s an increase in poultry infection.”
The H5N1 remains largely a disease among birds but experts fear it could change into a form that is easily transmitted from person to person, and spark a pandemic that can kill millions of people worldwide.
Beijing has reported the case to the World Health Organization and health authorities in Hong Kong and Macau, and convened an emergency meeting to handle the bird flu case.
The WHO in Beijing said it had offered technical assistance.
Since the H5N1 virus resurfaced in Asia in 2003, it has infected 391 people, killing 247 of them, according to WHO figures released in mid-December.
The last human H5N1 death in China was in February last year when a 44-year-old woman died in the southern Guangdong province.
At least 20 people have died of bird flu in China to date.
In neighboring Vietnam, a five-year-old has been infected with bird flu, the first human case reported in the country this year, Vietnam’s state-run television said on Tuesday.
Reporting by Ian Ransom, Yu Le and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; Editing by Sugita Katyal