Bird flu kills five in Azerbaijan

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The bird flu deaths of five people in Azerbaijan have pushed the world total human deaths from H5N1 past 100, the World Health Organization said yesterday.

WHO said seven of 11 patients from Azerbaijan had tested positive for the deadly strain of bird flu in samples checked at a major laboratory in Britain. Five of the cases were fatal.

The new global total of confirmed deaths from H5N1 is 103. Those deaths are part of the total 184 confirmed human cases of H5N1 since it broke out in Asia in 2003. Six of the 11 cases occurred in a small settlement in southeastern Azerbaijan.

The sources of infection are still under investigation, but they possibly were feathers from dead swans collected by young women. "The majority of cases have occurred in females between the ages of 15 and 20 years," the agency said. "In this community, the defeathering of birds is a task usually undertaken by adolescent girls and young women."

There so far was no indication of direct exposure to dead or diseased poultry in some of the cases. That has been the usual source of exposure for humans who caught bird flu, which remains a difficult disease for people to catch.

Experts fear, however, that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, sparking a human flu pandemic that could kill millions.

The victims in Azerbaijan were reported as being a 17-year-old girl, her cousins - a woman of 20 and a boy of 16 - and a close family friend, a 17-year-old girl.

Two more cases in the community - on Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea coast, south of the capital, Baku - are a 10-year-old boy, who has recovered, and a 15-year-old girl, who is hospitalized in critical condition.

The seventh confirmed infection was in a 21-year-old woman in the central western part of the country. She died on March 9.