The World Health Organization said Friday it was investigating two human cases of bird flu in Cambodia, after an 11-year-old girl died this week and her father also tested positive for the H5N1 strain.
Bird flu outbreaks first seen in 2021 are spreading around the world, including in the United States, where about 58.5 million birds from commercial and backyard flocks have been wiped out since last February, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
The risk of avian flu to humans is still thought to be low, but the global spread of H5N1 among wild bird species and even mammals, such as bears, raccoons, mink, foxes and sea lions, has raised concerns that it may can turn into one. The version that passes easily between people.
The WHO has stated that some avian influenza viruses “have the potential to mutate to increase transmissibility between humans.”
Cambodian health officials said on Thursday that the girl’s case was the first known human infection of H5N1 in Cambodia since 2014 in nine years.
The victim’s father also tested positive for the virus but did not exhibit any symptoms, and 11 other close contacts were tested in Prey Veng province, east of Phnom Penh, according to Reuters. Those results have not yet been disclosed, and it is not yet known whether the girl’s father was infected through human-to-human transmission, or through contact with infected birds or animals.
Cambodia’s health minister said the girl was diagnosed with avian influenza on February 16 after a high fever and cough. He was later transferred to the National Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, but died on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
The WHO has reported several cases of H5N1 infection in humans since 2021, including a 9-year-old girl in rural Ecuador, a man in the United Kingdom who kept “large numbers” of domestic birds, two poultry workers in Spain and the US. A person who was involved in culling affected poultry on a farm.
In these cases, the patients were in close contact with birds or poultry and so far, according to the WHO, “human-to-human transmission has not been identified”.
Director of Epidemics and Epidemic Preparedness and Prevention at the WHO, Dr. Sylvie Briand called the situation “alarming”, given the rapid spread of the virus among birds and infections found in mammals and humans.
“WHO takes the risk from this virus very seriously and urges all countries to increase vigilance,” Briand told a virtual news briefing on Friday.