Increasingly concerned about an outbreak of avian influenza, or "bird flu," the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reported today that Thailand has confirmed two human cases of the disease that has so far affected at least four countries in Asia.
Officials from Thailand's Public Health Ministry said laboratory results indicate that a seven-year-old boy from Suphanburi province and a six-year-old boy from Kanchanaburi province both have the H5N1 virus strain that has been identified in the current outbreak.
WHO reported today that the two boys, who are suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome, are alive. The H5N1 virus has already claimed five lives in Viet Nam.
WHO said it was working closely with Thai health authorities in response to the two confirmed cases. It is already conducting a joint investigation in Viet Nam with local authorities there.
Thousands of birds have died or been slaughtered in Thailand, Viet Nam, the Republic of Korea and Japan since mid-December following the simultaneous outbreak, described by WHO in a statement released yesterday as "historically unprecedented."
At a press briefing today in Geneva, WHO's Global Influenza Programme Team Leader Dr. Klaus Stohr said officials were worried that the avian flu virus may "re-combine" with the human flu virus and create a new, more virulent strain.
"There is a possibility that this avian virus merges with the human influenza virus and the resulting new strain will travel very quickly around the world," he said, emphasizing that currently there is no indication of human-to-human transmission of this strain.
Dr. Stohr and Dr. Jorgen Schlundt, WHO's Food Safety Programme Director said there was no evidence that humans can get avian flu from eating birds. But they added that people should always use good hygiene rules when dealing with chickens.
Officials at laboratories within WHO's Global Influenza Network are aiming to have prototype viruses for vaccine production ready for manufacturers within four weeks as the organization tries to speed up its response to the disease.
WHO warned the situation could get worse because the virus is highly contagious among birds and usually fatal. It also highlighted the risks to those involved in slaughtering birds.
"Culling operations can place large numbers of workers at risk of brief but intensive exposure to the virus," WHO said, urging the adoption of prevention measures.