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Avian flu mistaken for SARS

5th July 2006

A man who died of suspected severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in November 2003 in fact died of the H5N1 strain of avian flu, say Chinese scientists.

The information was revealed in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine (2006;354: 2731-2) in June and confirms H5N1 bird flu was circulating in China long before the first human case was confirmed  in the country in 2005 and predates fatal cases of H5N1 bird flu in humans in Vietnam and Thailand. 

The letter not only raises concerns about the degree of openness of Chinese authorities in sharing information about H5N1 bird flu infections, but has implications for a vaccine.

China's Ministry of Health has refused to confirm the contents of the letter, saying the results came from a single laboratory, which does not meet China's diagnostic standards, which needs parallel tests. These tests are now underway. 

The World Health Organization has asked the ministry for clarification of the case, the background and its chronology, as it would put the case ahead of those reported elsewhere. The new information could have a bearing on the development of a vaccine, say the letter’s authors, as the virus bore a genetic resemblance to other bird flu samples from poultry outbreaks in China as well as Japan in 2004.

 

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