A man at a hospital in Birmingham has been diagnosed with the H5N1 strain after traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he is believed to have contracted the disease. Health officials insist the risk of infection for other people is low but they are tracing people who came into contact with him.
“It’s not a cause for alarm,” said Dr Colin Ramsay, consultant in communicable disease control for the West Midlands health protection agency. “This is a case of bird flu caught from poultry in Pakistan and Afghanistan, most likely when he was there visiting friends and family.”
The patient had been working in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is believed to have contracted the disease there. He returned to Britain on 9 January and was taken to Heartlands hospital in Birmingham where he arrived on 11 January with respiratory symptoms. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he was transferred by air ambulance to the special unit at the Royal Free hospital in London.
Doctors said his prognosis is not good, adding there were no other confirmed cases of H5N1 in Britain and that the virus had not mutated into a form that could easily pass between humans. They said that because it was caught from birds, rather than another human victim, the risk to the general population – beyond those who came into direct contact with him – is very low.
The patient’s illness became public on Thursday afternoon when the Health Protection Agency issued a brief statement saying it had confirmed a case of H5N1 influenza in the UK. Details were given out to selected journalists under strict conditions, not least that they should not name the patient but refer to him only as Patient X. Ramsay said this degree of secrecy is usual in cases of imported infectious diseases.
“We are being open about this because it is not sensible to have a health scare every time somebody has an influenza-like illness,” he said. “But the risk to the general population is very low. We do not want people to be frightened.”
It’s not clear how many people might have come into contact with Patient X, but his family have been advised they are not at risk. The Health Protection Agency said the virus had mutated less than feared in this case and therefore it was likely that most of those people who were exposed to him have some immunity. Unlike previous cases where the disease has appeared in people apparently catching it from birds or other humans, Patient X’s case is believed to have come directly from birds.
“He was probably unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Ramsay. “If someone has got an influenza-like illness, they should try not to go out and mix with lots of other people, particularly if they are ill.” A Health Protection Agency spokeswoman said: “The risk for those who might have been in contact is very low.”
The Health Protection Agency refused to give any further details of the case. Ramsay said the patient, whose identity has not been revealed, was thought to be seriously ill but doctors were hopeful he would make a recovery. He could not confirm whether Patient X had