Bird Flu Strain That Killed Man Won't Spread, China Officials Say

A Chinese bus driver died after complications from the bird flu virus Saturday, but after genetic analysis, the country's health officials announced Monday that the strain contracted by the man can't spread from person-to-person, the Associated Press reported.

According to the country's official Xinhua News Agency, the 39-year-old man contracted the virus after having close contact with infected poultry.

"Though it is highly pathogenic to human beings, the virus can not spread among people," the Shenzhen Disease Control Center said in a statement, according to Xinhua. "There is no need for Shenzhen citizens to panic."

Since 2003, 593 bird flu cases have been confirmed and 336 people have died, according to the World Health Organization.

The newest case of bird flu came one week after two dead birds tested positive for H5N1 in Hong Kong, which is close to Shenzhen province.

"I am impressed at how thoroughly the Chinese government has investigated this case and how they're taking the necessary precautions," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Philip Alcabes, professor of public health at Hunter College, said it's important to remember that the H5N1 flu strain is an animal virus and it rarely makes humans ill.

"When it does, it is almost never transmitted to another person, as the evidence from China regarding this new case corroborates," said Alcabes. "From a public health standpoint, H5N1 flu is of concern for reasons of animal health, economics and safety of humans who are in close contacts with birds. Surveillance of H5N1 activity is sensible, but worry about outbreaks among humans is not."

But in a world of increasingly global relationships, Schaffner said this story should emphasize how important it is that public health surveillance activities "continue to function optimally to get early information on all these sorts of events throughout the world."

"There is going to be a great tendency to want to cut public health budgets in a tough economy, but this could be perilous," said Schaffner. "We can't have appropriate pandemic and bioterrorism preparedness teams in place if we put those teams on the bench. That's like cutting a town's fire department in hopes there won't be a fire."

Schaffner said the fact that one Chinese man's death from bird flu gains international media attention is a sign of how global the influenza pandemic can be.

"Influenza is an international infectious disease, so we must be sure to maintain a strong public health presence at home and have very close international ties with our colleagues around the world," said Schaffner.