Avian influenza remains a threat to human health despite a decline in cases since a peak in 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Wednesday.
The WHO noted that so far this year, 21 human cases of H5N1, including seven deaths, have been reported.
“Sixteen of those were in Egypt, including five deaths, four in Vietnam, including one death, and one in Indonesia, who died,” the WHO’s regional office in Manila said in a statement.
It added that Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Israel, Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam have reported outbreaks of the disease in poultry or wild bird flocks.
The WHO said the presence of H5N1 in poultry poses a health risk to humans, who could get infected through direct contact with contaminated birds.
It also warned that “the virus could undergo a process of reassortment with another influenza virus and produce a completely new strain.” “There is a constant risk that the H5N1 virus will combine with another strain of influenza,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, regional advisor for communicable disease surveillance and response.
“The influenza virus is unpredictable,” he said. “In areas where H5N1 is endemic, WHO and its partners are working to build surveillance systems to identify changes in the behaviour of the virus, raising awareness about the risks and protective measures, and building skills and capacity to respond to outbreaks quickly.” he added. The WHO urged people to protect themselves when handling, transporting, slaughtering or processing infected poultry and to maintain good personal and food hygiene to decrease the risk of infection.
It also stressed the need for farms to report any death or illness in their flocks to animal health authorities.
In 2006, the WHO recorded 115 human cases of avian influenza with 79 deaths. The number of cases has declined since then, with 73 cases and 32 deaths reported last year.