Bird Flu’s Young Victims

Over the past decade, nearly four out of five H5N1 victims in Cambodia have been children.

The death of an 11-year-old in Cambodia last month reopened a Pandora’s box of questions about the mysterious H5N1 virus.

The case initially set off alarm bells among pandemic watchers. The girl from Prey Veng province appeared to be part of a family cluster; her 49-year-old father also tested positive for the virus. Post-COVID-19, the phrase “family cluster” has an ominous ring. Could the infection have involved human-to-human transmission? Much to the relief of scientists, Cambodian health officials ruled out that possibility.

The girl’s death, however, highlighted another vexing problem. In the past decade, children accounted for nearly 80 percent of bird flu fatalities in Cambodia. In 2014, 100 percent of recorded cases were in the under-14 age group; nine contracted the virus, and four died. Data gathered by the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge shows that the median age of a bird flu patient is six years.

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