The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
A 3-year-old girl from Kampot province who was diagnosed with bird flu on Monday died Wednesday morning at Kantha Bopha Hospital in Phnom Penh, making her the sixth person to die from the virus since January 21, the Ministry of Health said.
The Health Ministry also raised concerns that the H5N1 virus could mutate and cause a pandemic by being transmitted from human to human in the same way as seasonal flu.
“Her condition worsened and she was admitted to Kantha Bopha Hospital on 6 February, 2013, with fever, abdominal pain and somnolence and died on 13 February, 2013,” the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Due to their limited financial means, the family had taken the girl to an inexpensive private clinic after she first developed symptoms on February 2, where she was initially treated for typhoid. But after her symptoms failed to improve, she was brought to Kantha Bopha on February 6.
“She died at 11 a.m.,” Tun Sambath, the girl’s father, said Wednesday.
“When we found out that she had bird flu, it was already too late for her to get treatment. We couldn’t save her,” he continued, adding that the incorrect diagnosis by the clinic in Angkor Chey district had greatly decreased his daughter’s chance of survival.
The death of the 3-year-old girl is the seventh reported case of the H5N1 virus so far this year. The Ministry of Health warned for the first time on Wednesday that the virus could mutate and start to spread exactly like seasonal flu.
“Although the virus does not easily spread among humans, if the virus changes, it could easily be spread like seasonal influenza,” the ministry said in the statement.
“That’s the scare now,” said Sonny Krishnan, communications officer for the World Health Organization in Cambodia, adding that the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed between 20 and 50 million people and infected 500 million worldwide, had also originated in birds.
“The 1918 pandemic, which was also an H5N1 type, it was also an influenza virus that originated from bird species so we are now worried that a person could have H5N1 and that the virus then reassorts with another influenza virus to produce a new virus which is transmittable from human to human,” he said.
To prevent a pandemic, the ministry’s rapid response team has been testing villagers from Angkor Phnom Touch commune since Monday to make sure no cases are missed in humans.
Starting next week, the Ministry of Health will conduct additional training with staff in all public and private health facilities in Kampot, Kampong Speu, Takeo and Kandal provinces.
In addition, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization is also training animal health officials from all provinces in an effort to start diagnosing bird flu in poultry before it is transmitted to humans.
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