February 24, 2006

S.Korea Says Humans Infected With Bird Flu 2003-04

By Kang Shinhye and Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL -- Four South Koreans were infected with the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in late 2003 and early 2004 but none of them developed any serious illnesses, a South Korean health official said on Friday.

These four are the first people in the country confirmed to have been infected with the H5N1 strain, Oh Dae-kyu, the head of the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference.

South Korea now becomes the eighth country to report a human infection of the H5N1 strain since 2003.

About 400,000 poultry at South Korean farms were infected by bird flu between December 2003 and March 2004, but no human cases were reported at that time. About 5 million poultry were slaughtered, health officials said.

That outbreak marked bird flu's re-emergence and was followed by cases around the world involving the deadly H5N1 strain, most recently in France, India and Malaysia, for example.

Oh said the discovery did not pose a threat to people's health. He said blood tests showed the four poultry workers had developed antibodies for the H5N1 strain of the virus.

"Bird flu is totally under control here now and there is no need to panic. People can safely consume eggs and chicken," Oh said.

The ministry had sent blood samples of 318 poultry industry workers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States for tests and received confirmation of the antibodies in the blood of the four on Thursday.

The blood was drawn at the time of the outbreak and tests were first conducted in South Korea. Those blood samples were also sent to the CDC in the United States in November 2005 for more accurate testing, Oh said.

South Korea plans to ask the CDC in the coming months to test samples drawn at the time of the outbreak of 1,600 other people who were involved in culling of fowl in South Korea.

The four did not develop major illnesses when South Korea had its bird flu outbreak in poultry and are all healthy now.

Three have been contacted by the ministry about the findings, while the other person is studying in Japan and his family reported he has been healthy.

There have been no cases of bird flu in South Korea since the 2003-2004 outbreak.

North Korea had an outbreak of bird flu about a year ago at poultry farms in its capital Pyongyang, and it reported there were no human infections.

At least 16 countries have reported outbreaks in birds this month, an indication that the virus, which has killed more than 90 people, is spreading faster.

So far, there have been no known cases of the virus spreading between humans -- a development experts fear could trigger a pandemic.