H5N1 strain claims first human victim in Africa

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The Independent Online

The first human death from avian flu in west Africa was confirmed at the weekend in what experts said was a much more serious development than the spread of the virus to a turkey farm in Suffolk.

A 22-year-old woman from Lagos, Nigeria, who died on 16 January was infected with the H5N1 virus, the World Health Organisation confirmed

Professor Angus Nicoll, head of the avian flu division of the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in Stockholm, said: "This [Nigeria] is the most populous country in Africa. It has got H5N1 in poultry and it must be a candidate for a pandemic to emerge. The most disturbing thing is that the possibility of the Nigerian government controlling this must be slim."

Worldwide, the H5N1 virus has infected billions of chickens and ducks over the past decade but only 271 humans, of whom 165 have died. Some scientists argue that with each passing year the likelihood of its mutating to create a pandemic strain that would sweep the world killing millions of people are diminishing. If it was going to mutate it would have done so by now, they say.

Others argue that as the avian virus becomes more widespread in the bird and human population, the chances of it mixing and mutating with a human virus to create a pandemic strain increase - and that that likelihood is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Koos Van der Velden, chairman of the European Influenza Surveillance Scheme, said: "I sense the public is fed up with the all the warnings about H5N1, when they see the pandemic has not happened. But the threat is still there and the chances are higher that it will start in a part of the world which is most heavily populated and where the systems of government are weak."

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