ASIA

Chinese toddler contracts bird flu

China has confirmed it is treating a two-year-old girl infected with the H5N1 virus that claimed the life of a woman less than two weeks ago. These are the first two cases of bird flu reported in almost a year.

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REUTERS - A two-year-old girl is in critical condition at a hospital in northern China after becoming infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus, state media said on Sunday, the second case in China in as many weeks.

The girl, surnamed Peng, was found ill on Jan. 7 in central Hunan Province and taken to a hospital in her home province of Shanxi on Jan. 11, Xinhua news agency said, citing an unnamed official with the provincial health department.

The Health Ministry did not say how the girl had become infected. There have not been any reports of outbreaks of the virus among birds in Hunan since May 2007.

The H5N1 virus remains largely a disease among birds but experts fear it could change into a form that is easily transmitted among humans, and spark a pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide.

With the world's biggest poultry population and hundreds of millions of backyard birds, China is seen as critical in the fight to contain bird flu.

Its Health Ministry said in a statement on its website (www.moh.gov.cn) that the girl was transferred to another hospital after her symptoms grew worse and authorities confirmed she had been infected with the virus on Saturday.

"Currently, the girl's condition is critical. Shanxi health departments are currently fighting to save her with the guidance of a team of health experts," the Health Ministry said.

"All people who have had close contact with her are under strict medical observation ... Up to now, no abnormal symptoms have been found," it said, adding that the World Health Organisation, and health authorities in Hong Kong, Macau and some other countries had been notified.

Calls placed to health departments in Shanxi province went unanswered.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said China's Health Ministry had notified them of the case, but could not provide more details.

"We are staying in close contact with the Health Ministry," a spokeswoman from WHO's China office told Reuters.

After not reporting a single human infection in almost a year, China has now confirmed two cases in as many weeks.

Health authorities earlier this month said a woman infected with bird flu had died in Beijing after buying ducks at a market in Hebei province, which surrounds the Chinese capital, sparking emergency checks of local poultry markets.

Experts said the case was not unexpected as the virus is more active during the cooler months between October and March, but said it pointed to holes in surveillance of the virus in poultry.

China's Agriculture Ministry last week said it had found no bird flu cases among poultry in Beijing or other areas surrounding the city during checks after the woman's death.

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 toddler's infection brings China's total to 32 human bird flu cases, of which at least 21 people have died.
 

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