Background: During 2004, a highly pathogenic avian influenza A (H5N1) virus caused poultry disease in eight Asian countries and infected at least 44 persons, killing 32; most of these persons had had close contact with poultry. No evidence of efficient person-to-person transmission has yet been reported. We investigated possible person-to-person transmission in a family cluster of the disease in Thailand.
Methods: For each of the three involved patients, we reviewed the circumstances and timing of exposures to poultry and to other ill persons. Field teams isolated and treated the surviving patient, instituted active surveillance for disease and prophylaxis among exposed contacts, and culled the remaining poultry surrounding the affected village. Specimens from family members were tested by viral culture, microneutralization serologic analysis, immunohistochemical assay, reverse-transcriptase-polymerase-chain-reaction (RT-PCR) analysis, and genetic sequencing.
Results: The index patient became ill three to four days after her last exposure to dying household chickens. Her mother came from a distant city to care for her in the hospital, had no recognized exposure to poultry, and died from pneumonia after providing 16 to 18 hours of unprotected nursing care. The aunt also provided unprotected nursing care; she had fever five days after the mother first had fever, followed by pneumonia seven days later. Autopsy tissue from the mother and nasopharyngeal and throat swabs from the aunt were positive for influenza A (H5N1) by RT-PCR. No additional chains of transmission were identified, and sequencing of the viral genes identified no change in the receptor-binding site of hemagglutinin or other key features of the virus. The sequences of all eight viral gene segments clustered closely with other H5N1 sequences from recent avian isolates in Thailand.
Conclusions: Disease in the mother and aunt probably resulted from person-to-person transmission of this lethal avian influenzavirus during unprotected exposure to the critically ill index patient.
Copyright 2005 Massachusetts Medical Society.