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HEALTH

Romania has deadly bird flu virus

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(CNN) -- The deadly strain of bird flu that has infected humans in Asia has spread to Europe after Romanian and European Union officials confirmed the H5N1 strain in Romania.

The existence of H5N1 bird flu in Romania bolsters the theory that the virus may be spread by migratory birds.

Despite the fact that 117 people in Asia have been infected by the strain and 60 have died, H5N1 in its current form does not easily infect humans. However, officials fear it could mutate into a more easily transmissible strain and result in a global pandemic.

The strain found in Romania was tested and confirmed to be H5N1 at a laboratory in Great Britain, according to EU commission spokesman Robert Soltyk.

The Romanian government Saturday posted a statement on its Web site, confirming the strain.

Before the confirmation, the EU commission had been working under the assumption that it was the highly pathogenic type of bird flu, and took all the necessary protective measures including banning the export of live birds and poultry products from Romania, Soltyk said. It had done the same for Turkey after bird flu was detected there last weekend and confirmed to be H5N1 on Thursday.

Romanian authorities have already culled birds in an effort to halt the spread of bird flu.

Imports of live birds and feathers from Turkey were banned earlier in the week.

On Thursday, the European Union said the H5N1 strain confirmed in Turkish poultry "is H5N1 closely related to a virus detected in a wild bird in central Asia a few months ago."

Health officials are worried that if the virus were to combine with a normal human strain of influenza virus inside a person infected with both, a hybrid virus could emerge that would have a lethality rate of more than 50 percent and the ability to easily spread from person to person.

To limit that possibility, they have recommended people in regions known to harbor bird flu get vaccinated against human forms of influenza.

Humans appear to become infected with bird flu by contacting sick or diseased birds or preparing them for consumption.

Meanwhile, an article published Friday on the Web site of Nature magazine questions whether reliance on the anti-viral drug Tamiflu alone to fight the virus could be a mistake. (Full story)

While Tamiflu currently is effective against H5N1 in humans, Nature said its research suggests that may change, citing analysis from a Vietnamese patient treated with Tamiflu that showed some viruses were partially resistant to the drug.

The patient recovered after receiving a higher dose, the magazine said, and the partial resistance was not surprising, but resistance could become a larger problem in the future.

"We don't know how frequently this kind of mutation can appear," Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Tokyo in Japan and the University of Wisconsin and lead author of a paper on the subject, told Nature. "We are relying too heavily on Tamiflu; we need more drugs."

Currently, sales of Tamiflu -- which may also confer protection -- have outpaced manufacturers' ability to make them.

The Nature article said the 14-year-old Vietnamese girl had no apparent contact with birds or poultry, but did care for her older brother who was sick with the deadly strain.

Bird flu normally spreads to humans through contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control Web site. However, it is thought that a few cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 have occurred.

CNN medical producer Kelley Colihan contributed to this report.

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