A 9-year-old is certainly not the first person to contract the avian influenza virus, but there is an important difference, according to avian influenza expert Thijs Kuiken from Erasmus MC. “This type of bird flu, which we also have in the Netherlands, has already been diagnosed in people in the United States and Great Britain. But these people got very little disease or weren’t sick at all,” he explains.
The case in Ecuador is the first in which a person contracted pneumonia from avian influenza. Kwik: “We’ve suspected for a while that the bird flu that’s circulating around the world can make people sick, and now there’s evidence of that.”
Ecuador’s Ministry of Health believes the girl contracted the virus through direct, unprotected contact with infected chickens. The people she was in contact with are in isolation. There are no indications that they are infected and thus the virus can be transmitted from person to person.
However, human-to-human transmission is not far off, Kuiken says. “If people are infected, variants can emerge.” Does this mean that a new pandemic is lurking? “The opportunity is small, but it cannot be ruled out.”
In the Netherlands, avian influenza is currently reasonably controlled. “No poultry farms have been infected in recent weeks. The virus is still circulating to a lesser extent among wild birds. There are also occasionally infected mammals. These are mainly foxes, but also otters, badgers and otters.”
According to Professor Koeken, vaccination of poultry is an important step in the fight against the avian influenza virus. This is already happening on a large scale in Asia and recently in Mexico as well, but it is expected to take another year or two before this is achieved in the Netherlands and Europe. “There is still a lot of research going on because they want to know more about the properties of the vaccine. Another problem is that many Dutch and European poultry farmers produce for export and some countries refuse to import vaccinated poultry.”
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