Deadly bird flu strain found in cat in Germany

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The Independent Online

The H5N1 strain of bird flu was confirmed today in a cat in Germany, the first time it has been positively identified in a mammal in Europe, the World Health Organization said.

The cat was found dead over the weekend on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen, where most of Germany's more-than 100 cases of H5N1-infected wild birds have been found, said Thomas Mettenleiter, leader of the Friedrich Loeffler institute lab.

Maria Cheng, a WHO spokeswoman in Geneva, said it was the first time she knows of that an animal other than a bird has been infected in Europe. She noted that tigers and leopards were infected by H5N1 in Thailand, where they were fed on chicken carcasses in a zoo.

In addition, bird flu infections were confirmed in January in humans in the Asian part of Turkey. Twenty-one people in the country tested positive for the H5N1 strain. Four of those victims, all children, died.

It is not clear whether cats can pass the disease to humans, Cheng said.

"We know that mammals can be infected by H5N1, but we don't know what this means for humans."

Scientists are concerned that H5N1 could mutate into a form that is transmitted easily among humans, which could lead to a pandemic.

Mettenleiter said there are no known cases of the virus moving from cats to humans, but nonetheless cautioned pet owners on Ruegen to keep their cats inside for the time being.

"An infection of humans, which theoretically cannot be ruled out, could probably only occur with very intimate contact to infected animals," Mettenleiter said.

In addition to the large cats infected in Thailand, three house cats were found to be infected with the virus in February 2004 outside Bangkok. In that case, officials said one cat had eaten a dead chicken on a farm where there was a bird flu outbreak and it appeared to have spread to the others.

Also today in Germany the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus was detected in wild birds in Bavaria, making it the fifth German state to report cases.

The Friedrich Loeffler institute determined that two wild birds found in the southern state tested positive for the strain, the state said.

The first cases of H5N1 were found on Ruegen in mid-February.

Maria Cheng, a World Health Organisation spokeswoman in Geneva, said it is the first time she knows of an animal other than a bird being infected in Europe, while noting tigers and leopards were infected by H5N1 in Thailand, where they were fed on chicken carcasses in a zoo.

It is not clear whether cats can pass the disease on to humans, Cheng said. "We know that mammals can be infected by H5N1, but we don't know what this means for humans."

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