HANOI, Vietnam - Vietnam on Friday confirmed the seventh human death from bird flu in three weeks and neighboring Thailand recorded its first case among poultry this year as health experts expressed concern about a possible repeat of last year's devastating outbreak.
About 330,000 birds have died or been slaughtered because of the virus in Vietnam this year, and the World Health Organization is worried infection could spread rapidly with the start of the Feb. 9 Lunar New Year holiday. Chicken is the centerpiece of Vietnamese meals during the festivities known as Tet.
"Since Tet is a time when people are traveling and more poultry is going to the market ... there is, of course, a high risk of the spread of the virus and infection," said Hans Troedsson, WHO's representative in Vietnam.
Troedsson said there is an urgent need for more research to better understand some of the mysteries surrounding the disease, including the ways in which it is transmitted and why it tends to often affect younger people, especially children.
WHO and other health experts fear that avian influenza could evolve into the next global pandemic if the virus mutates and human-to-human transmission occurs. There is, however, no evidence of that yet.
Last year, the outbreak appeared in 10 Asian countries, killing or forcing the slaughter of more than 100 million birds and jumping from poultry to people in Vietnam and Thailand, where 26 and 12 people died respectively since last year.
A 47-year-old man from northern Vietnam became the latest bird flu victim, bringing the human death toll to seven in three weeks, officials said Friday. The victim marks the first death in the north and brings the toll to 27 in Vietnam over the past year.
The report came a day after an 18-year-old woman died, the sixth bird flu victim. Officials said Thursday that she had eaten an infected chicken. No one else in her family, including her sister who slaughtered the bird, showed any sign of the disease.
The government in Hanoi has placed the country on alert and urged greater caution, but the domestic sale and transport of poultry has not been banned in Vietnam as it was last year during the Tet holiday.
"I eat it and I will continue to eat it during Tet," said Nguyen Van Phuong as he left Hanoi's largest poultry market carrying two live ducks. "I'm worried about my life, but I'm reassured all the poultry here is healthy."
Thailand on Thursday reported its first confirmed case of bird flu in poultry in two months. Tests performed following the death of a chicken on Jan. 12 showed that some of the 20 birds slaughtered as a precaution carried the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.
Members of the family in eastern Thailand who raised the poultry were also tested for the virus, but results were negative.