Human Transmission Feared in Bird-Flu Deaths

The so-called avian flu virus scientists have dubbed H5N1 has reportedly killed seven members of a family in Indonesia. World Health Organization officials are concerned the infection was passed through human contact. Alex Chadwick talks about the outbreak with Wall Street Journal reporter Nicholas Zamiska.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. The World Health Organization is sending and official to Indonesia to investigate the latest outbreak of bird flu. Seven members of one family in Northern Sumatra have been infected, six of them have died. Another death is suspicious. It looks as though the virus, in this instance, was transmitted from person to person - that is what medical researchers have been afraid of. It could lead to a global pandemic.

Nick Zamiska, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal is writing about this story. He joins us from Hong Kong. Nick, welcome to the program and give us the latest on this case, can you?

Mr. NICK ZAMISKA (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Yes, there is a family in Northern Sumatra in Indonesia that has fallen ill. Seven of eight people who fell ill have now died, and the health authorities in Geneva with the World Health Organization suspect that the virus may have passed from one human to another. And this would be the first such chain of human transmission, and that's what's raised the alarm bells with the WHO.

CHADWICK: Why dies the WHO think that this was passed from person to person? Why don't they suspect that people got it from chickens or ducks or something?

Mr. ZAMISKA: Well, one of the reasons is that so far, investigators have not been able to isolate and obvious source of infection in animals. And the timing of the different infections, sort of a cascade of infection, really points to the possibility of human to human transmission.

CHADWICK: So a theory would be that one person in this family would have maybe gotten from a bird somewhere, and then gone to a dinner and transmitted it somehow to everybody else.

Mr. ZAMISKA: Exactly. There was a family gathering where a bunch of members from extended family were going to have a barbeque. It's unclear if they actually had the barbeque, but they all - ten of the members, around ten, maybe a dozen - slept in the same room, in a very small room in one of the houses, together while the mother of one woman was sick. And soon thereafter, six other people fell ill.

CHADWICK: Nick, the World Health Organization uses this six-level scale to indicate the danger of a human influenza pandemic from this bird flu. It's now at number three, and they're not raising even though there is this case of what looks like human to human transmission. So why not raise it?

Mr. ZAMISKA: Well, right now, we're at stage three. It's a fairly subtle art distinguishing between stages three and four. Six is full blown pandemic. We're at stage three now, which indicates that humans are catching the disease, but there is no sign of human to human transmission, or at most very limited human to human transmission. And it's fairly subjective and subtle and very difficult call for the folks at WHO, you know, when to go to stage four. It seems like the preponderance of evidence suggests that we're still in stage three. There's no sign that the virus has mutated dangerously. So this, for now, staying in the category of very limited human to human transmission.

CHADWICK: Is the WHO worried about the implication of raising the level?

Mr. ZAMISKA: Well, one of the difficult things for the WHO officials -they're worried that the public will interpret this as, you know, a full blown pandemic is on its way, when in fact, it just means that the virus has progressed one incremental step closer to a pandemic forms.

CHADWICK: Wall Street Journal reporter Nick Zamiska speaking with us from Hong Kong. Nick, thank you.

Mr. ZAMISKA: Thank you.

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