JAKARTA, Aug 20 (AFP): A 35-year-old woman was Indonesia's 46th bird flu death, health authorities said as they stepped up an urgent probe into whether she may belong to a feared cluster of cases.
Indonesia has reported the world's highest number of fatalities from bird flu, which has now killed some 141 people globally according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The woman came from Cikelet, a group of villages in West Java's Garut district where two other people -- one of whom remains alive -- have been confirmed as being infected with H5N1. At least 16 others are being tested.
"Tests by the health ministry's research and development laboratory and by NAMRU (the US Naval Medical Research Unit) both showed that 'EL' was positively infected with bird flu," said senior health ministry official I Nyoman Kandun Sunday.
Positive results from these two laboratories mean that the WHO considers the death to be caused by bird flu.
Kandun was referring to Euis Lina, who died last Thursday after a few hours of treatment.
Three other people from Cikelet have also died recently while exhibiting possible bird flu symptoms but were not tested for the virus, heightening concern that limited human-to-human transmission may have occurred in the area.
Such cluster cases raise the chance of the virus mutating to become easily transmissible between humans. Currently the virus can only leap with relative ease between birds and humans.
Scientists fear a mutation could spark a global flu pandemic, with a potential death toll of millions.
Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari told ElShinta radio on Sunday that one of the three people who died of possible bird flu was the child of the latest victim, Lina.
The minister said samples from a further 16 people in the area had been taken for testing. Of three suspected bird flu cases earlier hospitalised in the provincial capital of Bandung, two have been cleared of the virus but test results for the third were not yet available, she said.
Garut general hospital said two more people -- a four-year old boy and a 50-year old woman -- from Cikelet were admitted to the hospital on Saturday on suspicion of having the virus.
"We have been notified that another suspected patient will be sent here too later today," said hospital spokesman Yogi Suprayogi.
Experts from the health ministry and the WHO were dispatched to Cikelet last Thursday to investigate the escalating number of cases in the area, which is difficult to reach by road and where sick poultry have recently been found.
Supari also said that more than 100 chickens had died in Cikelet recently and tests showed the presence of H5N1 in some of them.
ElShinta reported that the local district chief had declared all chickens in Cikelet should be culled and the keeping of chickens banned until 2007. Local authorities could not be immediately contacted for comment.
Authorities have said there is no proof so far of a cluster case in Cikelet, where victims have come from at least four villages and may not have had contact with each other.
An official from the bird flu information centre in Jakarta said Saturday that people's knowledge of bird flu in the remote rural area was very limited but officials were stepping up education about how to avoid the virus.
Indonesia has been widely criticised for failing to act promptly to curb the spread of the virus -- which is present in 28 of its 33 provinces -- but officials here have complained of a lack of international assistance.