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Human flu infection alarm

Jakarta, May 24 (Reuters): Limited human-to-human transmission of bird flu might have occurred in an Indonesian family and health experts are tracing anyone who might have had contact with them, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

The WHO statement came after one of the family members, a 32-year-old father, died on Monday after caring for his ailing son, who had died earlier. The agency said such close contact was considered a possible source of infection

But a senior WHO official said in Jakarta this was not the first time the world was seeing a family cluster and said that fresh scientific evidence has shown the virus in Indonesia has not mutated to one that can spread easily among people.

WHO said today it had no immediate plans to call a meeting of experts to discuss raising its global bird flu alert.

“Right now it does not look like the task force will need to meet immediately, but this is subject to change depending on what comes out of Indonesia,” WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said, when asked to comment on press reports of an imminent meeting.

Financial markets, however, were spooked on fears the Indonesia cluster could be the start of a pandemic. Currencies in Asia, where most bird flu cases have occurred, fell. US commodity prices came under pressure while European markets slipped as investors turned jittery.

Concern has been growing about the case in north Sumatra in which seven family members from Kubu Sembilang village died this month. The case is the largest family cluster known to date.

WHO and Indonesian health officials are baffled over the source of the infection but genetic sequencing has shown the H5N1 bird flu virus has not mutated, the UN agency said on its website (http://www.who.int) yesterday. Nor was there sign of the virus spread among villagers.

“To date, the investigation has found no evidence of spread within the general community and no evidence that efficient human-to-human transmission has occurred,” the WHO said.

Clusters are looked on with far more suspicion than isolated infections because they raise the possibility the virus might have mutated to transmit efficiently among humans. That could spark a pandemic, killing millions of people.

Firdosi Mehta, acting representative of the WHO in Indonesia, urged against any over-reaction, saying this was not the first cluster that the world has known.

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