Doctors Reject Early Diagnosis of Bird Flu

By Ran Ezer

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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BANGKOK — An Israeli backpacker originally diagnosed as suffering from human bird flu regained consciousness Wednesday for the first time in a week.

Ortal Swissa, an Israeli traveler in her 20s, had been hospitalized and listed in critical condition after coming down with a lung infection. When she was first admitted, doctors said Swissa was suffering from bird flu — now they say they are not sure what is causing her infection

Swissa arrived in Thailand this month after visiting Cambodia. She developed flulike symptoms while staying at Sheinkin St. Guest House, one of three Israeli guesthouses located in the Thai capital. At first she treated herself using antibiotics from her own first-aid kit. Then, November 16, she lost consciousness as she coughed blood while on the way to the nearest hospital. The Israeli guesthouse manager, known as Chagai, accompanied her.

The Thai doctor diagnosed her as suffering from human bird flu and ordered her to be quarantined immediately. Then she was transferred to a private hospital by a team of doctors sent by the Israeli Embassy. Her new doctor said that tests for the bird flu came back negative, though she suffered from classic symptoms.

Health experts worldwide have been warning of the potential for a pandemic if the bird flu virus were to mutate and become easily contagious among humans. China is currently vaccinating billions of birds to avoid such a turn of events.

Three weeks ago, a Thai farmer died after eating a chicken infected with bird flu — but his tests turned up negative, according to an official announcement.

On Sunday, Swissa’s brother, Itzik, told the Forward that he did not get a direct answer when he asked Ortal’s doctor how she was sure that his sister wasn’t suffering from a lung infection brought on by bird flu.

December is the peak tourism season in Thailand. Any new case of foreigners catching the disease could deal a serious blow to the Southeast Asian nation’s tourism industry, already reeling from the tsunami, the SARS outbreak and post-September 11 fears about terrorism.

More than 100,000 Israelis visit Thailand each year. They tend to travel together and stay in special guesthouses aimed exclusively at Israelis. Many of them attempt to eat kosher foods, which is said to help them avoid catching several different diseases, including bird flu.

The death rate in bird flu cases diagnosed in Thailand is 66%. Most of those who died have been children and senior citizens. Swissa’s chances for recovery are believed to be good, since she is young and not suffering from any other known chronic illnesses. She has been moved out of quarantine, and her medical staff and family members are now only required to wear face covers when entering her room.

The Israeli Embassy and Chabad Lubavitch emissaries in Thailand are helping members of Swissa’s family who have come to Bangkok to care for her.

Several Israeli travelers said that they are not afraid.

“In Israel we are used to bombings and other serious problems,” said Limor Cohen, 33, who decided to come to Thailand this week, even after reading about Swissa’s mysterious illness. “Bird flu is nothing compared to it. I’m not crazy to eat a chicken here, but I will never cancel my vacation or change the destination. It took me six months to convince my boss to let me have this one-month-long vacation.”

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