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The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that a number of people who have tested positive for a new strain of bird flu in China have had no history of contact with poultry, adding to the mystery about the virus that has killed 16 people to date.
Chinese authorities have slaughtered thousands of birds and closed some live poultry markets to try and stem the rate of human infection, but many questions remain unsolved including whether the H7N9 strain is being transmitted between people.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl confirmed that "there are people who have no history of contact with poultry", after a top Chinese scientist was quoted as saying about 40 percent of those with the H7N9 flu had had no poultry contact.
Several avenues should be explored by an international team of experts going to China soon, including the possibility that the virus can be spread between people, although there is "no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission", Hartl said. "It might be because of dust at the wet markets, it could be another animal source beside poultry, it could also be human-to-human transmission," he added by telephone.
China has warned that the number of infections could rise from the current 77. The latest victims are from the commercial capital of Shanghai, where the majority of the cases have been found, the official Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.
Zeng Guang, the chief scientist in charge of epidemiology at the China Disease Prevention and Control Center (CDPCC), said about 40 percent of human victims had no clear history of poultry exposure, the Beijing News reported on Wednesday.
According to state media reports, only 10 of the 77 cases as of Tuesday have had contact with poultry. The CDPCC declined to comment when asked by Reuters.