With growing concern at the increasing cases of avian influenza in mammals across the world, the spread has taken a tragic turn with the death of an 11-year-old girl in Prey Veng province, Cambodia. After her death, samples were sent to the National Institute of Public Health for confirmation of the cause. It is not known how she became infected. 

Details of the case 

BNO News reports that the girl lived in Roleang village, Prey Veng province. She was taken ill just under a week before her death, displaying symptoms such as a cough and fever. The Infectious Diseases Department of Cambodia’s Ministry of Health stated that she received treatment at “local level” before becoming tired.  

After being sent to the National Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, she sadly died on 22nd February and was buried in her village. Following her death, a sample was sent to be tested and was confirmed positive for H5N1.  

Although it is unclear how or when she became infected, it is reported that an unusually high number of wild animals had been found dead in the area. An emergency response team has been dispatched.  

The human threat 

With increasing infections in mammals across the world, such as minks and foxes, questions have been raised about the possibility of transmission to and/or between humans. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a statement earlier in February that the spread must be “monitored closely”.  

Although WHO “assesses the risk to humans as low”, he advised preparing for “any change in the status quo”. More recently, Dr Jeremy Farrar, newly appointed Chief Scientist at WHO, warned of a need to develop safe and effective vaccines in response to this “concerning issue”.  

Despite repeated assurance for global health experts that the human risk is low, the death of a child is likely to increase fear. Once again, we are reminded of the importance of protecting communities with greater exposure to potentially infected animals, and those for whom their daily lives involve interaction with livestock.  

We will hear more about the threat of and response to avian influenza at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington this April.