January 30, 2008 / 4:06 AM / 10 years ago

Indonesian dies of bird flu, source remains unknown

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A 32-year-old Indonesian man who had tested positive for bird flu has died, a health ministry official said on Wednesday, adding authorities are still investigating the source of infection.

The man, from Tangerang west of Jakarta, died on Tuesday at Jakarta’s Persahabatan hospital, said Toto Haryanto from the ministry’s bird flu centre.

His death takes the country’s toll from the H5N1 bird flu virus to 101.

Initially, authorities suspected the man had contracted the virus from pet doves kept in his neighbourhood, but subsequent tests revealed the birds and other fowl in the neighbourhood were H5N1-free.

“It’s a big mystery that has yet to be solved,” said Zulkarnain Hassan from the agricultural ministry’s bird flu control unit tasked with investigating the source of infection.

“There are three out of four people who died of bird flu this week whose virus source remains unknown,” Hassan told Reuters.

The country’s death toll hit 100 on Monday when two separate laboratory tests confirmed a 23-year-old woman from East Jakarta and a 9-year-old boy from the capital’s outskirts had died of bird flu. The source of infection in both cases is still unknown.

The number of bird flu deaths has spiked recently, with six people dying of the virus in January.

Emil Agustiono, a top national bird flu committee official, said the recent surge in cases was caused by a combination of several factors, including poor sanitation and weather.

“The virus is happy when it’s wet. It thrives during the rainy season ... combine that with poor sanitation and lack of awareness. The people in the slums are at greater risk,” Agustiono told Reuters.

Contact with sick birds is the most common way of contracting the virus, which is endemic in poultry populations in most of Indonesia.

Fighting bird flu has been difficult in Indonesia as millions of backyard fowl live in close proximity to humans, while health education campaigns have often been patchy and rules difficult to enforce.

Although H5N1 remains an animal disease, experts fear the virus could mutate into a form easily passed from human to human. Millions of people could die because they would have no immunity against the new strain.

Not including the latest death, bird flu has killed 223 people in a dozen countries since the virus reappeared in Asia in late 2003, according to World Heatlh Organisation data.

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