Health officials are alarmed by a new mutated strain of the avian influenza virus found in a patient in Chile. This new variant of the H5N1 bird flu virus could pose a greater threat to humans, according to researchers.
The H5N1 bird flu virus has infected 868 people and killed 456 since 1997, according to the World Health Organization. Although human-to-human transmission of the virus is rare, a new study suggests a mutated strain found in a Chilean man may spread more easily between people.
The mutated H5N1 virus was detected in a patient hospitalized in Chile’s Andofagasta region. The man developed symptoms on March 13 and was admitted to intensive care. He had no recent travel history and may have contracted the virus from infected birds or sea lions, according to the WHO.
Genetic analysis of the virus uncovered two mutations that concern experts. “I have not seen an analysis of the virus found in Chilean patients,” said influenza researcher Andrew Pecos.
Health officials emphasize the threat to humans remains low at this time. “There is no evidence that the mutated virus spread to other people, did not mix with other flu viruses, or acquired the ability to escape drugs and vaccines,” said the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the large outbreak of H5N1 in birds and mammals in recent months increases the opportunity for the virus to evolve in ways that support human-to-human transmission, experts warn. An 11-year-old girl in Cambodia recently died of H5N1, highlighting the need for improved vaccines before the virus becomes highly infectious between people.
The discovery of a potentially more dangerous mutated H5N1 virus in Chile underscores the importance of monitoring for changes in avian influenza viruses that could make them more lethal or transmissible to humans. Although the threat level remains low, experts fear bird flu may have taken a more sinister turn.
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