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Bird Flu History

The current outbreak of bird flu is different from earlier ones in that officials have been unable to contain its spread. An outbreak in 1997 in Hong Kong was the first time the virus had spread to people, but it was much more quickly contained. A total of 18 people were hospitalized with six reported deaths. About 1.5 million chickens were killed in an effort to remove the source of the virus.

Unlike the 1997 scare, this outbreak has spread more rapidly to other countries, increasing its exposure to people in varied locations and raising the likelihood that the strain will combine with a human influenza virus.

Confirmed instances of avian influenza viruses infecting humans since 1997 include:

  • 1997: In Hong Kong, avian influenza A (H5N1) infected both chickens and humans. This was the first time an avian influenza virus had ever been found to transmit directly from birds to humans. During this outbreak, 18 people were hospitalized and 6 of them died. To control the outbreak, authorities killed about 1.5 million chickens to remove the source of the virus. Scientists determined that the virus spread primarily from birds to humans, though rare person-to-person infection was noted.

  • 1999: In Hong Kong, cases of avian influenza A H9N2 were confirmed in 2 children. Both patients recovered, and no additional cases were confirmed. The evidence suggested that poultry was the source of infection and the main mode of transmission was from bird to human. However, the possibility of person-to-person transmission remained open. Several additional human H9N2 infections were reported from mainland China in 1998-99.

  • 2003: Two cases of avian influenza A (H5N1) infection occurred among members of a Hong Kong family that had traveled to China. One person recovered, the other died. How or where these 2 family members were infected was not determined. Another family member died of a respiratory illness in China, but no testing was done. No additional cases were reported.

  • 2003: Avian influenza A (H7N7) infections among poultry workers and their families were confirmed in the Netherlands during an outbreak of avian flu among poultry. More than 80 cases of H7N7 illness were reported (the symptoms were mostly confined to eye infections, with some respiratory symptoms), and 1 patient died (in a veterinarian who had visited an affected farm). There was evidence of some human-to-human transmission.

  • 2003: H9N2 infection was confirmed in a child in Hong Kong. The child was hospitalized but recovered