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WHO: limited human-to-human bird flu transmission possible in Pakistan, no current threat

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    HANOI, Vietnam — Limited human-to-human bird flu transmission may have occurred in Pakistan, but no new infections have been reported for two weeks and there appears to be no threat of further spread, a top World Health Organization official said.
    A WHO team has finished its initial investigation in Pakistan after up to nine patients, including several family members, were suspected of being infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus in areas north of Islamabad. They were the country’s first reported human cases.
    The experts were expected back in Geneva to begin piecing together how the virus may have spread, but they found no evidence of anyone currently sickened by the virus, Dr. David Heymann, the WHO’s top flu official in Geneva, told The Associated Press by telephone Friday.
    ‘‘I think the team right now feels on initial analysis that this might be a small chain of human-to-human, non-sustained transmission,’’ he said, stressing there was no cause for alarm.
    He said the last reported case was on Dec. 6. Pakistani health officials have conducted initial testing on the samples, and found them to be positive, but WHO has sent the specimens to one of its collaborating laboratories for confirmation.
    At least 209 people have died worldwide from the virus, which began plaguing Asian poultry stocks in late 2003. It remains hard for people to catch, but scientists worry it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic.
    Most cases have been linked to contact with infected birds, but scientists believe limited human-to-human transmission has occurred a few times before among blood relatives who had close contact.
    Five brothers were sickened last month in the small city of Abbotabad, about 30 miles north of Islamabad. One was a veterinarian who was involved in slaughtering sick poultry infected with bird flu. Two of his brothers fell ill and died, one of whom was buried before tests were conducted. The veterinarian and his other two brothers recovered.
    Up to five other people in the same area also tested positive for the virus in preliminary tests.
    Meanwhile, Indonesia, which is the world’s hardest-hit country with 93 human deaths, also reported Friday that five people from an extended family had been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in an area where bird flu was earlier reported in poultry. Specimens have been taken to determine whether any of the relatives were infected with the H5N1 virus.
    Myanmar reported its first human case last week and a number of other countries have recently reported poultry outbreaks during the winter months when the virus typically flares.
    Margie Mason is based in Vietnam and covers medical issues across the Asia-Pacific region.

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