Bangladesh reports first human case of H5N1 bird flu.

Authorities here have stepped up surveillance against avian influenza after the case of a 16-month-old boy, who took ill in January, was diagnosed as one of infection with the deadly H5N1 virus.

Bangladesh become the 15th country to report a case of human infection after the Geneva-based World Health Organisation (WHO), citing results from laboratories at the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, confirmed the infection on Thursday.

Since 2003, when bird flu first surfaced, 15 countries have reported a total of 382 human cases, with 241 of them turning fatal. WHO has now confirmed human cases in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Prof. Mahmudur Rahman, a director at Bangladesh’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), told IPS that although the boy was totally cured well before the confirmation, surveillance has been stepped up across the country.

Since the H5N1 virus was first detected in Bangladesh, at a state-run poultry farm on the outskirts of the capital, authorities have culled more than two million birds, causing losses estimated at 700 million US dollars.

With 47 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts affected, the poultry industry, introduced two decades ago to help this impoverished country, is now facing its biggest ever challenge. Affected are more than 1.5 million people employed in one of the world’s largest poultry industries that produces producing 220 million chickens and 37 million ducks annually.

According to the South Asia Enterprise Development Facility, a multi-donor facility managed by the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group, the poultry sector supports five million people directly or indirectly through 150,000 poultry farms, constituting 1.6 percent of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In recent years, the poultry industry has been growing at an annual rate of about 20 percent, recording a turnover of 25 -1.5 billion dollars in 2006. Analysts say the figures for 2007 may fall below that mark thanks to drastic culling.

Battered by the culling, monsoon floods and a devastating cyclone in November, the country’s once booming poultry industry is now seriously threatened. Businessmen say the outbreak has already caused the closure of more than a third of the country’s poultry farms.

As the virus spread, the state-owned Bangladesh TV and a dozen or so private cable TV channels often broadcast programmes on avian influenza making people aware of the deadly virus, but observers said impact is minimal.

‘’Street vendors are still selling live chickens in Dhaka, although the city corporation authority has imposed a ban on selling live chickens in the open,’’ said Dhaka school teacher Sharif Ahmed.

Without disclosing the identity of the affected boy, Rahman said he lived in a crowded slum in Dhaka. His parents had bought a live chicken from a nearby market which they kept in their house for some days before slaughtering it for a meal.

The boy was among the more than 3,000 people suspected of being infected with bird flu in Bangladesh, but his was the only case that tested positive, a health department official said.

After the Bangladesh government was informed of the test results by the WHO, the national advisory committee on avian influenza met on Thursday to step up measures.

Rahman said IEDCR was already conducting surveillance measures in the districts affected by bird flu and that people who were in direct contact with poultry birds and products were being kept under observation by epidemiologists. As part of the new measures, Bangladesh will set up isolation units in all public hospitals, he said.

“Right now everything is under control. We have trained doctors and readied hospitals to tackle any new detection,” Rahman said. ‘’We also have trained volunteers in the villages.’’

Bangladesh, which has a population of nearly 150 million, is the world’s most densely populated country with nearly 1,000 people per sq km. With poultry farms set up everywhere in the country the risk of the virus spreading fast is high.

Earlier this year, India’s West Bengal state which shares a long border with Bangladesh suffered the neighbouring country’s worst outbreak of the virus among poultry. But no human cases of bird flu have been reported in India, which has also carried out massive poultry culling.

Bird flu was thought only to infect birds until the first human cases were detected in Hong Kong in 1997. Though rare, humans catch the disease through close contact with infected birds.

Experts consider vigilance and speedy action such as isolation of human cases important because of a fear that the H5N1 strain could mutate to become capable of human-to-human transmission and set off a deadly pandemic. Densely populated countries like Bangladesh, where people live in close proximity to backyard poultry or keep birds in their homes, are seen as particularly risky.