Egyptian woman contracts bird flu: agency

CAIRO (Reuters) - A 33-year-old Egyptian woman has contracted the highly pathogenic bird flu virus, the fourth case this month, Egyptian state news agency MENA said Wednesday.

MENA said the woman came from the northern province of Kafr el-Sheikh. Her case brings to 64 the number of confirmed cases of the H5N1 avian flu virus in Egypt, which has been hit harder by bird flu than any other country outside Asia.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel Rahman Shahine said the woman had started to show symptoms on April 7 after coming into contact with dead birds.

While H5N1 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 the H5N1 avian influenza virus 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.

Some 23 Egyptians have died after contracting the virus. Most came 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 Organization 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.

Writing by Will Rasmussen; editing by Robert Woodward