‘Worrying’ bird flu situation in Cambodia as WHO starts investigation

Local authority officials meet health experts before spraying disinfectant at a village in Prey Veng eastern province in Cambodia (AP)
Local authority officials meet health experts before spraying disinfectant at a village in Prey Veng eastern province in Cambodia (AP)

The World Health Organisation has described the bird flu situation in Cambodia as “worrying”.

The WHO’s intervention comes after an 11-year-old girl died after being infected by the virus last week. It was the south Asian country’s first known case of H5N1 virus infection since 2014, health minister Mam Bunheng said.

Now the World Health Organisation is working with Cambodian authorities after two confirmed human cases of H5N1 bird flu were found in one family in the country, it was reported.

Due to the recent rise in cases in birds and mammals, Dr Sylvie Briand, the director of WHO’s epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention, told reporters in a virtual briefing that WHO was reviewing its global risk assessment in light of the recent developments.

Earlier this month, the health agency’s last assessment suggested that the risk to humans from avian flu was low.

Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that the recent reports of infections in mink, otters and sea lions “need to be monitored closely”. He had also advised people not to touch dead or sick wild animals and to instead report them to local and national authorities.

Meanwhile, Dr Briand said: “The global H5N1 situation is worrying given the wide spread of the virus in birds around the world and the increasing reports of cases in mammals including humans. WHO takes the risk from this virus seriously and urges heightened vigilance from all countries.”

The 11-year-old girl who dies last week was from the rural Prey Veng province and had fallen ill and was sent to a hospital in the capital Phnom Penh on 16 February. She was diagnosed with bird flu after suffering a fever with cough and throat pain.

She died shortly after on Wednesday, the health ministry said in a statement. The girl’s father also tested positive and 11 others have been tested for the flu.

Dr Briand said it was not yet clear whether there had been any human-to-human transmission, which was a key reason to focus on the cases in Cambodia, or if the two cases were due to the “same environmental conditions”, likely close contact with infected birds or other animals.

According to reports, a new strain of H5N1, clade, emerged in 2020 and has been causing record numbers of deaths among wild birds and domestic poultry in recent months. It has also infected mammals, raising global concerns.