By Federico Quilodran
Saturday, August 22, 2009
SANTIAGO, Chile, Aug. 21 -- Chilean officials said Friday that tests show swine flu has jumped to birds, opening a new chapter in the progress of the global epidemic.
A top U.N. animal health expert said the infected turkeys have suffered only mild effects, easing concern about a potentially dangerous development. Chile's turkey meat remains safe to eat, the expert said.
Chile's Health Ministry said it ordered a quarantine Friday for two turkey farms outside the port city of Valparaiso after genetic tests confirmed that sick birds were afflicted with the same virus that has caused a pandemic among humans.
So far, the virus -- a mixture of human, pig and bird genes -- has proved to be highly contagious but no more deadly than common seasonal flu. However, virus experts fear that a more dangerous and easily transmitted strain could emerge if it combines again with avian flu, which is far more deadly but harder to pass along.
The farms' owner, Sopraval, alerted the Agriculture Ministry after egg production dropped this month. After initial tests on four samples, further genetic testing confirmed a match with the subtype A/H1N1 2009, the Agriculture and Health ministries announced.
"What the turkeys have is the human virus -- there is no mutation at all," Deputy Health Minister Jeanette Vega told Chile's Radio Cooperativa on Friday.
The Health Ministry said that in addition to ordering the quarantine, it has alerted the United Nations' World Health Organization. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, meanwhile, was working closely with Chilean government scientists, said Juan Lubroth, the head of the FAO'S infectious diseases group in Rome.
Chile is sending some samples abroad for more genetic sequencing to confirm that it matches the pandemic strain, Lubroth said. "As a scientist, I want to touch, smell, feel, taste it" before agreeing that it is a match, he said.
Meanwhile, officials are acting to contain the outbreak by limiting the turkeys' contact with people and wildlife, Lubroth said. The H1N1 virus has infected at least 12,000 people in Chile and is responsible for 128 confirmed deaths.
Also Friday, WHO said that the global spread of swine flu will endanger more lives as it speeds up in coming months and that governments must step up preparations for a swift response.
"At a certain point, there will seem to be an explosion in case numbers," WHO's Western Pacific director, Shin Young-soo, said at a symposium of health officials and experts in Beijing.
Most countries may see swine flu cases double every three to four days for several months until peak transmission is reached, Shin said.