New pandemic fear as cameraman falls ill in bird flu village
(The Mail on Sunday Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)FEARS that the bird flu virus which has killed three children in Turkey could mutate into a pandemic strain have been heightened by the discovery of a human flu bug in the same area.
The alarm was raised last night after a man who had just returned home to Belgium from the location of the Turkish outbreak ended up in hospital with flu-like symptoms.
He has tested negative for H5N1, the avian virus that has now killed 78 people around the world. But he was diagnosed with an H3 virus, a human flu strain.
The fact that human flu now appears to be circulating in the Van province of Turkey, in close proximity to the H5N1 strain, raises concerns that it could provide the perfect melting pot for a pandemic strain.
Different viruses are known to have the ability to swap or ' reassort' genetic material in a process known as 'antigenic shift'. This creates a new virus to which people have no immunity, resulting in a lethal pandemic.
The key condition is that the new strain is easily transmissible between humans. To fulfil this, the new virus would normally need material from a human virus such as H3.
The patient in Belgium is believed to be a cameraman who travelled to eastern Turkey to film on the bird flu crisis. He returned home on Thursday but checked himself into hospital in Brussels the following day.
The presence of human flu in Van is borne out by reports of dozens of local people attending hospitals with flu-like symptoms.
But only 18 have been confirmed as having the H5N1 virus.
Last night leading virologist Professor John Oxford, based at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, said: 'There is a concern. If you are infected with H3 and then H5 as well, the two could swap a few genes and you could have some unknown virus emerging. It could have the internal genes of the H3 and the H5 and the external proteins of N1, and then you have a pandemic virus.' There are already worrying signs that H5N1 is mutating. Last week scientists at the Medical Research Council in London analysed samples from two fatal cases in Turkey and found that the virus had changed so that it could be more easily passed from birds to people.
But the World Health Organisation has said that so far there is no sign that H5N1 has changed so that it can become easily transmissible between humans.
Experts fear that a mutation in the virus could lead to a repeat of the Spanish flu in 1918-19, which killed up to 50 million people around the world.
Liam Donaldson, the UK's Chief Medical Officer, has estimated that one in four Britons could be infected in a pandemic, with 50,000 deaths. But if the mortality rate was similar to that experienced during the Spanish flu, closer to one million would die.
Last night a Department of Health spokeswoman said: 'We are monitoring the situation in Belgium.'
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