A 10-year-old girl has become the youngest person in Egypt to die of bird flu since the first human case was recorded in the country in March 2006. Hers was the 15th death of the 35 human cases reported to date.
The girl, from Naqada village in Upper Egypt’s Qena province, died on Sunday morning from the H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus, officials reported. A spokesperson from Egypt’s health ministry confirmed that she was the youngest person to die of bird flu in the country to date. The previous youngest was a 15-year-old girl who died on 10 April.
Though the 10-year-old first felt symptoms of the illness on 1 June, she was not admitted to hospital until 6 June because of poor diagnoses.
"In terms of diagnosis, she went to four different private physicians before she was finally diagnosed. This issue [bird flu] needs more awareness and attention from doctors in the private sector," said Dr John Jabbour, International Health Regulations Officer and medical officer for Emergency Diseases, World Health Organization (WHO) Cairo.
Jabbour said that it is crucial for people to know the symptoms of bird flu and for doctors to recognise and treat those symptoms as early as possible to avoid any fatality. But bird culling campaigns and fines for having so-called ‘backyard birds’ – domestic poultry – have deterred many people from reporting the potentially deadly illness.
"The main problem in Egypt is that people are afraid of the national authorities. They are denying being exposed to H5N1 and backyard birds, which delays the treatment and causes deaths," Jabbour said.
Another person from the same village as the girl is suspected of having contracted the H5N1 strain of avian flu. A 25-year-old housewife has been taken to Hemayat Hospital in Qena, according to Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper.
Incidences of avian flu in humans are typically treated in Egypt with the antiviral drug Tamiflu. Health officials stress that the treatment’s success is highest if the patient reports the illness as soon as symptoms emerge.
"In villages, people continue to give each other gifts as part of the culture. These gifts are in the form of poultry, ducks and so on, which become backyard birds. And this is another problem," said Jabbour.
Earlier this year, Egypt authorities launched a major campaign to vaccinate backyard birds, which are the most common route of transmission of avian flu from animals to humans. In addition, the government has boosted its efforts to make the public aware of the risks of keeping poultry in the home. Although cases continue to be reported, the campaign appears to be limiting fatalities.
Health officials remain vigilant for signs that the virus could evolve and be transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.