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Deadly Bird Flu Can Spread Between People

But Virus Does Not Yet Spread Efficiently Among Humans, Say Experts
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Thai Family's Flu Tragedy

Could another pandemic be brewing? The latest clue came from a Thai family devastated by the bird flu last fall.

An 11-year-old girl in Thailand fell ill with the bird flu in September 2004. At first, her symptoms were fever, cough, and a sore throat. She didn't improve in the hospital. Her condition worsened until she died.

The girl had lived with her 32-year-old aunt. Her family owned chickens that died from the disease a few weeks earlier. Although the girl reportedly didn't handle the chickens directly, she played and slept in the area directly under an elevated house where the chickens were often present.

Before the girl died, her 26-year-old mother -- who lived far away in a Bangkok suburb -- rushed to her side. She made a 4-hour drive to the hospital, where she comforted her daughter for as long as possible. Nurses say she sat on her daughter's hospital bed, hugging and kissing her and wiping her mouth for 16-18 hours.

The mother didn't protect her own health. Neither did the girl's aunt, who also kept a hospital bedside vigil.

The girl was transferred to a regional hospital for more advanced care, but she died. After the funeral, the girl's mother returned home. By then, she already had a fever and headache. She was later hospitalized in her own town and died. The girl's aunt was also hospitalized but survived.

Spreading the Flu

Later, doctors investigated. They talked to the girl's surviving family and health care workers. They also tested samples from the aunt and the dead mother and girl. Their conclusion: The mother and aunt probably got the bird flu from the girl. The mother, a garment worker, hadn't been around poultry. She was only in the girl's house for 10 minutes.

Likewise, the aunt had no poultry exposure for 17 days before falling ill. That's longer than the typical two to 10 days before symptoms usually appear after infection with this virus.

It's probably not the first time bird flu has spread among people. Inefficient spread of the bird flu could have happened among Hong Kong health care workers in 1997, some without obvious signs or symptoms of the illness, and in a few clusters of families in Vietnam.

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