PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Recent cases of bird flu discovered in two Cambodian villagers, one of them fatal, show no sign of human-to-human transmission, health officials in the Southeast Asian nation say, allaying fears of a public health crisis. An 11-year-old Cambodian girl from a village in the southeastern province of Prey Veng died Feb. 22 at a hospital in the capital, Phnom Penh, shortly after tests confirmed she had Type A H5N1 bird flu. Her father tested positive for the virus the day after her death, but showed no strong symptoms and was released Tuesday from a Prey Veng hospital where he had been kept isolated, the Health Ministry said. He was sent home after three negative tests. The two were the only villagers among more than two dozen tested who were found to carry the virus, the ministry said in a statement. Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, normally spreads among poultry but can sometimes spread from poultry to humans. The recent detection of infections in a variety of mammals has raised concern among experts that the virus could evolve to spread more easily between people, and potentially trigger a pandemic. The Health Ministry said an investigation determined that the father and daughter had both “been infected from poultry at their village, and there is no indication or evidence that there was infection from father to daughter.”
The conclusion that they were infected directly from birds was reached by experts from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as their Cambodian counterparts, Health Ministry spokesperson Ly Sovann told The Associated Press.
In an interview published Tuesday on the website of the scientific journal Nature, a Cambodia-based virologist said the girl who died had been infected with a different strain of the bird flu virus than the one that has been spreading worldwide for the past year and a half among wild and domestic birds.
Erik Karlsson of the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia in Phnom Penh was part of the team that tested the virus sample from the girl, and was cited as saying that it belongs to a virus group that has been found in chickens and ducks in the region for at least a decade. She was the first person in Cambodia since 2014 known to be detected with H5N1.
He said it wasn’t clear why the girl would have caught the virus after such a long time with no cases, but suggested it might be related to “a lot of global changes in agricultural practices owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that could have created the conditions for a spillover.”
“We know that, in Cambodia, the pandemic increased the amount of backyard poultry farming. Many people, for example tour guides, couldn’t work and had to supplement their incomes and sources of food for their families,” he was quoted saying. “All over the world, people are still struggling, which has resulted in changes in agricultural practices that can increase spillover risk. And changes to people’s health, for example malnutrition or being overweight, can make people more susceptible to getting infected.”