CHINA has reported two deaths from bird flu after five new H5N6 cases were confirmed, with the WHO calling for "urgent" action.
A jump in the number of people infected with bird flu in China last year has raised concern among experts, who warned the strain could be more infectious to humans.
The Hong Kong Health Department said five people in Sichuan province, Zhejiang province, and the Guangxi Autonomous Region were infected with the avian influenza strain in December last year.
Two people have now died, while the other three remain in hospital fighting for their lives, officials said in a statement.
A 75-year-old man from Luzhou in Sichuan province fell ill on December 1 after exposure to live domestic poultry.
He was rushed to hospital four days later and died on December 12.
A 54-year-old man from Leshan in the same province also fell ill on December 8 and died three weeks later on December 24.
He was also reported to have a history of exposure to live domestic poultry.
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A 51-year-old woman from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province then became sick on December 15 after exposure to live domestic poultry.
She was taken to hospital on December 18 and authorities said she is in a critical condition.
The other two cases have been recorded in Liuzhou – a city in Guangxi Autonomous Region, the Hong Kong Health Department said.
A 53-year-old man with a history of exposure to dead poultry fell ill on December 19 and remains in hospital in a serious condition.
A 28-year-old man from the same city also fell ill on December 23 and is said to be in a critical condition.
It was not immediately clear how the second man was infected.
Since 2014, 65 people have been infected with H5N6 bird flu – but more than half of those were reported in the past six months.
The WHO said most of the cases had come into contact with poultry, and there have been no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission.
But it said further investigation was "urgently" needed to understand the risk and understand the rising number of human cases.
Thijs Kuiken, professor of comparative pathology at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, previously warned: "The increase in human cases in China this year is of concern. It's a virus that causes high mortality.
"It could be that this variant is a little more infectious (to people)… or there could be more of this virus in poultry at the moment and that's why more people are getting infected."
WARNING TO TRAVELLERS
China is the world's biggest poultry producer and top producer of ducks, which act as a reservoir for flu viruses.
Backyard farms in China are still common and many people still prefer to buy live chickens at markets.
Although avian influenza viruses constantly circulate in domestic and wild birds, they rarely infect people.
But the evolution of the viruses, which have increased as poultry populations grow, is a major concern as they could change into a virus that spreads easily between people and cause a pandemic.
In November last year, the UK health authorities issued a warning to travellers to China about the risk of bird flu.
Dr Gavin Dabrera, a Consultant in Acute Respiratory Infections at UKHSA said: "Anyone visiting China should avoid exposure to any birds or live birds in ‘wet markets’ as a precaution.
"We continue to encourage people to avoid touching dead or dying birds and maintain good hand hygiene while travelling.
"Avian influenza remains a risk in China and if travellers experience any flu like symptoms within 10 days of returning from China, they should call their GP or NHS 111 and report their recent travel."
What is bird flu?
Bird flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds. In rare cases, it can affect humans.
There are lots of different strains of bird flu virus and most of them don't infect humans. But there are four strains that have caused concern in recent years, according to the NHS.
- H5N1 (since 1997)
- H7N9 (since 2013)
- H5N6 (since 2014)
- H5N8 (since 2016)
Although H5N1, H7N9 and H5N6 don't infect humans easily, several people have been infected around the world, leading to a number of deaths.
H5N6 has been found in some wild birds in the UK – but this is a different strain to the H5N6 virus that has infected some people in China.
Bird flu is spread by close contact with an infected bird – dead or alive.
- touching infected birds
- touching droppings or bedding
- killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking
It's important to note you can't catch bird flu through eating fully cooked poultry or eggs, even in areas with an outbreak of bird flu.
If you're visiting a foreign country that's had an outbreak you should:
- wash your hands often with warm water and soap, especially before and after handling food, in particular raw poultry
- use different utensils for cooked and raw meat
- make sure meat is cooked until steaming hot
- avoid contact with live birds and poultry
The main symptoms of bird flu can appear very quickly and include:
- a very high temperature or feeling hot or shivery
- aching muscles
- a cough or shortness of breath
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