By Jason Gale

April 13 (Bloomberg) — Egypt asked the World Health Organization to help investigate an outbreak of bird flu after a dozen non-fatal cases of the disease this year prompted speculation the virus may be becoming less virulent.

Two WHO doctors and a scientist will travel to Cairo later this week at the request of Egypt’s Ministry of Health, said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the United Nations agency in Geneva, in an interview today. The UN team will assist local authorities identify how the patients were infected with the H5N1 strain of avian influenza and whether there have been any significant changes in disease patterns or in the virus itself.

Scientists have been following H5N1 for more than a decade because of concern it could spark a pandemic if it becomes as infectious for humans as it is for poultry. A less lethal strain could be more contagious because people would have longer to transmit it through coughing and sneezing. None of the 12 Egyptian cases reported to the WHO this year has been fatal.

“These data do indeed suggest that there may have been a reduction in the virulence of the outbreak strain, and there is a perceived risk of progression of the virus to a less virulent but more transmissible form,” the International Society for Infectious Diseases said today in an e-mail via its ProMED-mail program.

The survival of H5N1 patients in Egypt also may reflect early treatment with antiviral medicines, ProMED said.

At least 417 people in 15 countries have contracted the virus since 2003. Three of every five cases worldwide were fatal. Most cases were caused by contact with infected poultry, such as children playing with them or adults butchering them or plucking feathers, according to WHO.

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