ISLAMABAD Pakistan is urging provincial authorities to obey health guidelines to stop any bird flu outbreaks after fears lapses in poultry culling methods led to eight people being infected with the H5N1 virus.
The Health Ministry is sending out messages via radio and pamphlets to villages and farms in North West Frontier Province, where the eight people, including a veterinarian involved in culling, were infected in South Asia's first human cases.
The vet's brother died of bird flu. A third brother also died but it is unclear if he was also infected with the virus.
"These winter months are critical," Federal Health Secretary Khushnood Akhtar Lashari told Reuters on Thursday.
"We are asking provincial authorities to adhere to safely guidelines, but it is quite difficult because many of these places are in remote areas and many people have the attitude that 'it can't happen to me'."
Authorities now believe there is no threat of a pandemic from the bird flu cases in Pakistan as World Health Organisation experts carried out tests in the region.
But the H5N1 thrives best in winter months in part because people spend more time indoors and in close proximity to each other and their livestock.
Lashari said the man believed to have been infected first, a veterinarian who helped operations to cull chickens and who has now recovered, might have not worn a mask because he suffered from asthma.
He might also have taken his culling equipment back home with him. While he recovered, his two brothers died.
Six people have since recovered, while the remaining case is still being treated, the Health Ministry says.
The case highlights the difficulty of health control in Pakistan, where the health system is weak, particularly in the countryside. Many villagers are also illiterate, making communications harder.
In the Pakistan cases, the WHO said they were likely to be a combination of infections from poultry and limited human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 avian flu virus due to close contact.
The WHO says a similar case occurred in Indonesia in 2006 among family members believed to have contracted the virus while caring for sick loved ones.
A WHO report on Pakistan is due in the coming days.
The H5N1 virus is hard for humans to catch and is mainly a bird disease. But experts fear the strain could spark a global pandemic and kill millions if it mutates into a form that spreads easily between people.
A WHO team, led by Hassan El-Bushra of its regional Cairo office, have been in Pakistan this week helping investigate the outbreak.
Since H5N1 resurfaced in Asia in late 2003, the virus has killed 209 people in 11 countries, according to the WHO. The latest Pakistan cases have yet to be included in the formal WHO tally.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)