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Doctors hunt for source of deadly 'bird flu' strain

December 8, 1997
Web posted at: 10:28 a.m. EST (1528 GMT)

HONG KONG (CNN) -- Hong Kong health officials on Monday began stalking a "bird flu" virus suspected of killing two people in the territory and sickening two others, and called for international assistance in developing a vaccine against the disease.

The new influenza virus strain, identified as H5N1, was previously known to exist only in poultry. Officials have downplayed fears regarding at least one aspect of the virus: So far, it does not appear to pass from human to human.

"However, we feel that this possibility would need to be further looked into," said Hong Kong Deputy Director of Health Paul Saw. Authorities have launched a drive to screen relatives of victims and medical staff who have treated affected patients.

First noticed in humans in May

The disease was first identified in a human in May 1997, when a 3-year-old boy who was infected died from ailments including pneumonia, respiratory disease and inflammation of the brain.

Since then, the virus has been identified in a 13-year-old girl who has been hospitalized for treatment, a 2-year-old boy who was hospitalized in November but recovered fully, and a 54-year-old man who died on Friday.

Initial findings did not show that the four cases shared a common source, nor was the virus transmitted by any one of the victims to the others, Saw said.

Rush on to develop vaccine

In revealing the information, Hong Kong health officials said they were asking the World Health Organization to help them produce a new vaccine against the virus.

"We are hurrying to make the vaccine because there is a potential for the virus to spread worldwide," Saw said. "The WHO has been asked to alert vaccine production centers in the world ... with a view to preparing the necessary vaccines."

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also arrived from the United States on Sunday to help track down the deadly virus. They are searching for the source of this new strain in poultry farms in Hong Kong and southern China.

And residents of Hong Kong are being asked to look out for any signs that the strain might be spreading. "We are still not quite sure of the nature of the infection, so to be sure we are tracing the contacts and anyone who has any symptoms, we are offering treatment to them," said hospital chief executive Dr. Alison Reid.

New strains can lead to epidemics

International experts said similar viruses in the past had crossed over from animal species, including birds and pigs. Spreading rapidly among humans, who have no immunity to them, they can lead to global flu epidemics.

More than 20 million people died in the worst epidemic, the Spanish flu of 1918. Nearly 40 years later, 1 million succumbed to the Asian flu. And in 1968, "Hong Kong flu" claimed up to 700,000 lives worldwide.

Correspondent Donna Liu and Reuters contributed to this report.


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