Jakarta – The government has called on health officials across the country to increase vigilance over a potential bird flu outbreak amid concerns that the swift mutation of the H5N1 virus in mammals could turn it into a zoonotic disease that could spread among humans.
"There has been no report of human-to-human transmission, but we need to remain vigilant," said Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the ministry's director general of disease control and prevention, in a statement released on Saturday.
The ministry has issued a circular asking health agencies at the provincial and regency levels to coordinate with agencies overseeing animal health and other stakeholders to prevent the transmission of bird flu to humans.
Each agency is required to set up health facilities for those suspected of contracting the virus, and boost its capacity to conduct laboratory tests on potential bird flu cases. The ministry has also instructed health offices at seaports, airports and border crossings to increase surveillance of domestic and international travelers. "All hands are on deck," Maxi said.
New H5N1 strain
In its circular, the ministry says that is aware of the spread of a new strain of the H5N1 virus, clade 220.127.116.11b, which is known to have been spreading in Europe, America and Asia, particularly China and Japan, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Based on the World Health Organization (WHO) assessment, at least for now, there is no evidence to suggest that humans are highly prone to being infected by the virus or that there has been human-to-human transmission.
However, the ministry notes that there has been an increase in the number of spill-over cases from birds to several mammals, particularly in North America and Europe. This has raised concerns that a "swift and consistent" mutation of the virus among mammals, as warned by the United Kingdom Health Security Agency (UKHSA), may indicate that the new H5N1 strain has a tendency to become zoonotic and spread among humans.
The new bird flu virus strain has infected unvaccinated ducks at a commercial farm in South Kalimantan, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
The WHO expressed concern about bird flu on Friday after the father of an 11-year-old Cambodian girl who died from the disease also tested positive, raising fears of human-to-human transmission, AFP reported.
The Cambodian girl fell ill on Feb. 16 with a fever, coughing and sore throat, and died on Wednesday from the H5N1 bird flu virus, according to the health ministry. On Friday, the authorities said the girl's 49-year-old father had tested positive, adding that he was asymptomatic.
It was feared that the two cases were caused by the new virus strain, which has caused record numbers of deaths among wild birds and domestic poultry in recent months.
However, Reuters reported on Sunday that the virus that infected them had been identified as an endemic clade of bird flu circulating in the country, citing a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Preliminary genetic sequencing carried out in Cambodia led its health ministry to identify the virus as H5 clade 18.104.22.168c, which has circulated in Cambodia among birds and poultry for many years and has sporadically caused infections in people, the CDC said in a statement on Saturday.
"Yes, this is an older clade of avian influenza that had been circulating around the region for a number of years and while it has caused human infections in the past, it has not been seen to cause human-to-human transmission. However, that doesn't mean that the threat is any less," said Erik Karlsson, director of the National Influenza Center of Cambodia and acting head of virology at the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge, as quoted by Reuters.