An 11-year-old girl has died from bird flu in Cambodia. This is why the WHO is ‘worried’

Key points
  • An 11-year-old girl died this week after testing positive for the H5N1 bird flu strain.
  • The WHO says it is not yet clear if there has been any human-to-human transmission of the virus.
  • WHO-affiliated laboratories already contain two strains of influenza virus that are closely related to the circulating H5N1 virus.
The World Health Organization is working with Cambodian authorities after two confirmed human cases of H5N1 avian influenza were found in one family in the country.
Calling the situation “worrisome” due to the recent rise in bird and mammal cases, Dr Sylvie Briand, Director of Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention, told reporters in a virtual briefing that the WHO is reviewing its global risk assessment in light of recent events.

The UN health agency last assessed the risk of avian influenza to humans as low earlier this month.

Cambodia has tested at least 12 people for the H5N1 bird flu strain after an 11-year-old girl died this week from the virus in the country’s first known human transmission of the virus in nearly a decade.
The victim’s father, who was part of a group the girl came into contact with in a province east of the capital Phnom Penh, tested positive for the virus but showed no symptoms, Health Minister Mam Bunhaeng said in a statement on Friday.
The statement said a girl from Prey Veng province was diagnosed with bird flu after she fell ill on February 16 with a high fever and cough.

As her condition worsened, she was transferred to the National Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, where she died on Wednesday, the health ministry said.


“The global H5N1 situation is worrying given the widespread occurrence of the virus in birds around the world and the increase in case reports in mammals, including humans,” said Dr. Briand.
“WHO is taking the risk of this virus seriously and is calling on all countries to be extra vigilant.”
Dr Briand said it is not yet clear if there was any human-to-human transmission, which was a key reason for focusing on the cases in Cambodia, or if the two cases were due to “the same environmental conditions”, likely close contact with infected birds or other animals.
A new strain of H5N1, branch, emerged in 2020 and has caused a record number of deaths in wild and domestic birds in recent months.
It has also infected mammals, causing global concern.

However, unlike earlier H5N1 outbreaks that have been around for more than two decades, this subtype does not cause serious illness in humans.

So far, only half a dozen cases have been reported to the WHO in people who have had close contact with infected birds, and most have been mild.
Experts have suggested that the virus may need to change for human transmission to occur.
However, the WHO said it is still stepping up preparedness efforts and noted that antiviral drugs are available as well as 20 licensed pandemic vaccines if the situation changes, although these will need to be updated to more closely match the circulating strain. H5N1 if needed. .
This could take four to five months, said Richard Webby, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds at St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

However, some stocks of vaccines will be available at the same time.

WHO-affiliated laboratories already contain two strains of influenza virus closely related to the circulating H5N1 virus that manufacturers can use to develop new vaccines if needed.

This week’s Global Influenza Expert Meeting proposed the development of a different strain that more closely matches H5N1 clade, Mr. Webby said at a briefing.