By Cynthia Johnston
CAIRO (Reuters) – Two Egyptian women died of bird flu on Monday, bringing to four the number of fatalities from the virus in the most populous Arab country in less than a week as Egypt emerged from a warm-weather lull in avian flu cases.
All four deaths involved women and were believed to have resulted from exposure to sick or dead backyard birds.
Firdaus Mohamed Hadad of Menoufia province in the Nile Delta region north of Cairo was taken to hospital on Saturday and died early on Monday, Egypt’s Health Ministry said in a statement.
“She suffered from a high fever and difficulty breathing and had a pulmonary infection after coming into contact with birds suspected of being infected with avian flu,” the statement said. “She was placed on a respirator but died at dawn on Monday.”
Later, John Jabbour, an Egypt-based World Health Organisation official, told Reuters a second woman had died of bird flu in northern Egypt. The health ministry identified the woman as Hanem Ibrahim from Damietta, also in the Nile Delta.
The four Egyptian deaths from bird flu over the past week broke a 5-month pause in human cases in Egypt and brought to 19 the number of Egyptians who have died of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus since it emerged in Egypt in early 2006.
It is also the third winter that the virus has struck after lying low during Egypt’s hot summers, when it is much less likely to spread from one carrier to another.
On Sunday, a 25-year-old Egyptian woman died of bird flu in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura while another woman, Ola Younis, died of bird flu on Wednesday in Beni Suef province south of Cairo, the first case of this winter season.
Jabbour said the high fatality rate in the recent cases was likely due to a delay in diagnosis after patients and their family members denied exposure to infected birds.
“All of the new cases have exposure to sick or dead backyard birds. … The problem is the delay in reporting that they have been exposed,” he said. Patients are most likely to survive if they start treatment with Tamiflu early after symptoms occur.
Around 5 million households in Egypt depend on poultry as a main source of food and income, and the government has said this makes it unlikely the disease can be eradicated despite a large-scale poultry vaccination programme. WHO officials have said the bird flu virus was now considered endemic in Egypt.
Deaths from bird flu now total more than 210 worldwide since 2003 and have been reported in several African and Asian countries, as well as in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Egypt, with 43 confirmed human cases, has been the single hardest-hit country outside of Asia.
Health experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily from one person to another, possibly triggering a pandemic that could kill millions.
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Stephen Weeks)