Bird flu detectives hunt for clues to stop next global pandemic

If you want to know how the world is preparing for the next global pandemic look at Rolaing, a Cambodian village located on a tributary of the Mekong River. For a few days in February this isolated spot became a hive of public health activity after an 11-year-old girl died of H5N1, the most virulent strain of bird flu — the country’s first fatality from the disease since 2014.

A rapid response team of local health workers was dispatched within hours to the village, a two hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh. They found a community of almost 2,000 people living in brightly colored wooden and sheet metal homes, close to their livestock and chickens.

A worker carries chickens at a market in Phnom Penh on Feb. 24, 2023.

In the space of just 24 hours they set up a makeshift testing center, identified a dozen of the girl’s closest contacts, took swabs and scoured for the pathogen. Her father tested positive. He was treated with antivirals and recovered. At least 11 others, including close relatives she lived with, were found to be infection-free. The team monitored the village for another three weeks, testing dozens more people. Only the two infections, which health experts said stemmed from direct contact with sick animals, were discovered.

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