BANGKOK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Thai boy has become the 70th person to die of bird flu, authorities said on Friday, as reports warned a flu pandemic could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars as well as millions of lives.
China has also reported a new case of H5N1, the fifth person in the country known to have been infected with the deadly virus. The 31-year-old woman, who lived in Heishan county of Liaoning province, has since recovered.
Chinese officials were accused of concealing bird flu outbreaks in several provinces for many months this year, according to comments from a leading virologist in Hong Kong published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on Friday.
The death of the 5-year-old boy from the central province of Nakhon Nayok, 110 km from Bangkok, took Thailand's bird flu death toll to 14 out of 22 known cases since the virus swept through large parts of Asia in late 2003.
It was not certain how the boy caught the virus, which usually strikes those in close contact with infected fowl or their droppings, senior health officials said. The boy, who died in hospital on Wednesday, was not known to have had direct contact with chickens, health officials said.
"We believe that the boy contracted the virus from his surroundings because, although his family does not raise chickens, there are chickens raised in his neighbourhood," said Thawat Suntrajarn, head of the Health Ministry's Disease Control Department.
That would follow the usual pattern of human infections of the virus, which has not yet shown signs of evolving into a form which could pass easily from person to person.
Experts say that is the great fear. If the H5N1 virus did acquire that ability, it could set off a pandemic which could kill millions of people without immunity to the new strain.
The virus is now endemic in poultry in parts of Asia and countries around the world are preparing plans to deal with a pandemic that could cause massive economic losses as well as millions of deaths.
China has so far reported more than 30 outbreaks of bird flu and five cases where the virus spread to humans.
Beijing has promised resources and openness in fighting bird flu after being widely criticised for an initial cover-up of the SARS virus in 2003.
But a leading virologist claimed bird flu was "out of control in China".
"I don't know if they are brave enough to admit that they have the virus in every corner of the country," said Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong, who the Globe said had analysed nearly 100,000 bird flu virus samples from across China.
"Quite honestly, some provinces have the virus and they still haven't announced any outbreak. I can show direct evidence, even though China is still trying very hard to block my research," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
A pandemic could cause a serious recession in the U.S. economy, with immediate costs of between $500 and $675 billion, according to two new reports.
New Jersey based WBB Securities LLC predicted a pandemic could cause a one-year economic loss of $488 billion and a permanent economic loss of $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy.
The World Bank has predicted a pandemic could cost the global economy $800 billion a year.
If the virus mutates into a form which passes between humans, it is likely to closely resemble the 1918 pandemic strain of flu that killed anywhere between 20 million and 100 million people, separate reports released by WBB and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said.
This means 30 percent of the population would be infected and more than 2 percent would die, the report from the CBO said.
"Further, CBO assumed that those who survived would miss three weeks of work, either because they were sick, because they feared the risk of infection at work, or because they needed to care of family or friends," the report reads.
The CBO said a pandemic could deal a $675 billion hit to the U.S. economy.
(Additional reporting by Kanokwan Boonngok in Bangkok; Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey and Maggie Smith in Washington; Emma Graham-Harrison in Beijing; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and David Ljunggren in Ottawa)
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