Egypt has just reported its third case of bird flu in humans this year, while China says that four people have died from the disease in 2009 – the latest a 31 year old woman in the Xinjiang Uygur region in the north-west of the country. China has also been accused of covering up an outbreak of the disease in poultry after more than 20 dead birds were washed up on beaches in Hong Kong. At least three have tested positive for the H5N1 bird flu virus.
The World Health Organisation reported 348 cases of the disease in humans up to January 2008 across 14 countries. Two hundred and sixteen of those infected had died. That represents a death rate of more than 60% - stoking fears that if the strain ever did manage to pass from human to human it could threaten us with a pandemic on the scale of that of 1918 in which perhaps 70 million died, including a quarter of a million in Britain (see A Disastrous History of the World and A Disastrous History of Britain).
So far, mercifully, there has been little evidence of transmission of H5N1 from human to human apart from isolated cases in Thailand and Vietnam.