SEVERAL bird flu patients in China have no history of contact with poultry, the World Health Organisation revealed yesterday.
The virus has killed 16 Chinese so far, and had been thought to have spread from infected birds.
China has slaughtered thousands of birds and closed some live poultry markets in a bid to stem human infections. However, WHO’s statement raises fears the H7N9 virus is being transmitted between people.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl confirmed that “there are people who have no history of contact with poultry”, after a top Chinese scientist was quoted as saying about 40 per cent of those with the H7N9 flu had had no such contact.
“This is one of the puzzles still to be solved and therefore argues for a wide investigation net,” Mr Hartl said.
He said several avenues should be explored by an international team going to China soon, including the possibility that the virus can be spread between people, although there is “no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission”.
Wendy Barclay, a flu expert at Imperial College London, said would be very difficult to determine or rule out people’s exact exposure to poultry – or to wild birds, also a possible source of infection. “The incubation time might be quite long, so visiting a market even 14 days before might have resulted in infection,” she said.
Two new possible cases of human-to-human transmission are being investigated,. The first is a couple in Shanghai who tested positive, Mr Hartl said, adding that the wife had died and the husband was still sick.
A seven-year-old girl in Beijing was the first case in the capital at the weekend and the boy next door also tested positive, but is not showing symptoms.