India reported its first case of human death due to bird flu on Tuesday, after a child succumbed to the disease.
The 11-year-old boy, who died at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, was infected with avian influenza, or the H5N1 virus, according to the health ministry.
Avian influenza is an illness that occurs mainly in birds like chickens and turkeys.
While the H5N1 virus does not infect humans easily, the consequences for public health could be very serious if it becomes easily transmissible from person to person.
Infection in humans can cause severe disease and has a high mortality rate, according to the World Health Organisation.
The boy from Haryana developed symptoms of fever, cough and breathing difficulty and was admitted to AIIMS on July 2.
His samples tested negative for Covid-19 but positive for avian influenza.
He suffered from multi-organ dysfunction and died on July 12.
Doctors and nurses who treated the patient have been monitored since July 16 and no one has reported symptoms, the health ministry said.
Contact tracing was undertaken and family members, close contacts and health care workers are under close surveillance. None has any symptom.
AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria said the case should not lead to public panic.
"The transmission of the virus from birds to humans is rare and sustained human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 virus has not yet been established and therefore there is no need to panic," he told the Press Trust of India on Wednesday.
"But then people working closely with poultry must take precautionary measures and maintain proper personal hygiene."
Other medical experts, however, said the report of a human death from H5N1 is alarming and needs to be examined thoroughly for its origin and variants and immediate measures taken to check the trend.
"There is a possibility that Delhi has a few cases of bird flu, but it is the first time such a serious thing has emerged," said Dr B.L. Sherwal, medical director at the Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital in New Delhi.
"The death of a human is absolutely alarming for public health and it needs to be taken seriously.
"This case needs to be examined very carefully so that its origin can be traced and examined in a genome sequencing lab to find out more about it. We need to know whether it has come from a chicken or wild bird."
Earlier this year, thousands of wild birds were found dead and tens of thousands of chickens and ducks were culled after a massive wave of bird flu cases swept several states, including Haryana.
Several infections were from a different strain, H5N8, although India is considered endemic to the H5N1 virus.
According to medical experts, many variants of avian influenza are prevalent. It spreads through droppings, saliva and secretions of birds.
"The virus enters the human body by inhalation or through the nose, mouth or eyes," said Dr Neetu Jain, who is attached to the PSRI Hospital in New Delhi. "Whenever a person touches his mouth or nose with dirty hands, there is a chance of infection.
"Bird flu is a contagious respiratory illness and the symptoms are the same as the common cold. However, the disease's severity varies. Mortality from bird flu can be as high as 60 per cent."
Dr Jain said mostly people working in the poultry business get affected by bird flu.
Reuters, Indo-Asian News Service