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Man dies from first human strain of H5N2 bird flu

The 59-year-old died of a new strain of bird flu not previously seen in people, but no other cases have been discovered so far

A 59-year-old man in Mexico has died from a strain of bird flu that has never been found in a human, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). He was bedridden for weeks with fever, shortness of breath and diarrhoea, before succumbing to bird flu.

Officials have said that none of the man's close contacts have contracted it, and the new strain does not pose a risk to the wider public. The man is was reported to have underlying health conditions including chronic kidney failure, diabetes and high blood pressure, making him vulnerable to the virus.

But Mexico is no stranger to this strain of bird flu. There were three poultry outbreaks of H5N2 reported in nearby parts of Mexico during March and farms regularly vaccinate against the strain. H5N2 was also responsible for a wave of outbreaks in commercial poultry farms in the USA in 2014 and 2015. However, scientists at the WHO have not considered it to be much of a threat to humans as most human illnesses are attributed to H7N9, H5N6 and H5N1 bird flu viruses.

Officials in the country are continuing to monitor birds near a shallow lake on the outskirts of Mexico City and investigating how the man caught the virus.

Richard Webby, a flu researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis noted the importance of looking into potential causes of the virus. ‘The fact there was no reported contact (with an infected bird) does raise the possibility that he was infected by someone else who visited him, but it’s premature to jump to those conclusions.’

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Health professionals have praised the response of public health officials in the country following the man’s death by the virus.

Professor Ian Brown, Avian Virology group lead at Pirbright Institute, UK’s leading research centre for farm diseases, said: ‘The prompt follow up in healthcare professionals and family members in contact with the infected patient provides reassurance at present this is an isolated case.’

Matthew Ferrari, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics said that the system is doing the right thing in the face of an unknown virus. It is ‘detecting and documenting these rare human infections, where years ago we were stumbling in the dark’.

Earlier this year, the UK declared itself free of all categories of avian flu according to the standards from the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH). Ian Jones, professor of Virology at the University of Reading, said the risk of H5N2 to the general UK population is ‘very low’.

‘It is impossible to generalise from a single case. However, as H5N2 is present in Mexico and the infected individual had underlying medical conditions, which may have contributed to the outcome, it would be reasonable to suppose this is a one-off case of zoonotic transfer with no potential to spread.’

But he noted that the recent incident should ‘reinforce the importance of monitoring and eradicating outbreaks in poultry as soon as they occur’.