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Bird Flu Virus May Strike Again

May 25, 1999

HONG KONG (AP) _ Scientists still know very little about a bird flu virus that killed six people in Hong Kong but say that a similar deadly flu outbreak could strike the congested territory again.

The H5N1 avian flu virus crossed over to humans for the first time in late 1997, eventually killing six people and sickening a dozen others in Hong Kong. To stamp out the virus, the government ordered all of the territory’s 1.4 million chickens slaughtered early last year.

``At some predictable point in the future, it is extremely likely ... that another new influenza virus with the potential to cause a pandemic will appear,″ the South China Morning Post today quoted leading U.S. influenza expert Dr. Keiji Fukuda as saying.

``Though it’s out of sight, it should not be out of mind,″ he said.

Fukuda, the head of epidemiology section of the influenza branch at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was testifying at an inquest into the fatalities Monday.

Fukuda told the court that scientists have been unable to pin down on how the virus crossed over to humans.

``Usually, avian viruses do not jump from birds to humans. But this particular virus appeared to be able to do so. We do not understand why,″ the Post quoted him as saying.

The H5N1 avian flu virus never exchanged genes with human flu viruses, and it appeared that although it was mostly transmitted directly from poultry to humans, a small quantity was likely to have been passed from person to person, the Post said.

``If an avian virus exchanged genes with human influenza, it becomes more easily transmittable from person to person, which is the biggest danger,″ he said.

The virus kills chickens instantly and causes pneumonia or flu-like symptoms in humans.

Earlier this year, a less virulent strain of H5N1 resurfaced in Hong Kong and sickened two children, who both fully recovered.

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