Bird Flu Strain Jumps From Birds To Humans For First Time

Remember the bird flu? A new strain that jumps from birds to humans has made an appearance for the first time in Taiwan.

The new strain of the bird flu, which scientists originally believed could not infect people, has been found in a 20-year-old Taiwanese woman, according to scientists.

Researchers at the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control identified the new strain as the H6N1 virus, after the woman was admitted to the hospital in May with a lung infection.

She was treated with Tamiflu and later released.

The H6N1 is known to affect chickens in the island nation, but has never before been spotted in humans.

According to the Associated Press, the patient, who has remained anonymous, worked in a deli and had no contact with live birds.

The research paper, which was published on the Lancet Respiratory Medicine on Thursday, says researchers don't know how the woman contracted the bird flu.

Several close friends and family members also had flu-like symptoms around the time, but none tested positive for the H6N1.

More bird flu cases than ever before have appeared in humans in recent years. Last Spring, researchers in China reported the first human cases of the H7N9 strain.

However, none of the cases so far seem to be easily spread among people.

"The question again is what would it take for these viruses to evolve into a pandemic strain?" says Marion Koopmans, a virologist at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands.

Ever since the H5N1 virus was detected in 1996, scientists have been closely monitoring its development. The bird flu has killed more than 600 people thus far, mostly in Asia.

Professor Koopmans is concerned that scientists were getting no warning until people were reported ill. In the case of H6N1 and H7N9, they didn't make birds very sick.

"We can surely do better than to have human beings as sentinels," Koopmans wrote, suggesting that better research and monitoring of birds is needed to prevent the virus from jumping to humans.

Scientists at a pharmaceutical company in Maryland have been testing an H7N9 vaccine. Since it first appeared last spring, the H7N9 virus has infected at least 137 people and killed at least 45.

During the clinical trials, 284 people were given two shots of the vaccine, which appeared to create enough antibodies to protect them.

"They gave a third of the usual dose and yet had antibodies in over 80 percent," said expert Dr. Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic. "This is encouraging news. We've struggled to make vaccines quickly enough against novel viruses."

As the different strains of bird flu evolve, researchers are working to stay on top of the virus, but more needs to be done to prevent a global pandemic, doctors say.

[Image via The Nation]