Experts Fear Deadly Bird Flu Virus in Chile May Be More Infectious to Humans

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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