SEOUL — A 22-year-old South Korean soldier who helped kill chickens infected with avian flu remained in stable condition Tuesday afternoon, two days after he reported having possible symptoms of the deadly virus.

The Special Forces corporal, identified only by his last name, Cho, is being quarantined and treated with antibiotics in a South Korean military hospital in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul, according to a spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

If testing shows he has the disease, he will be the first in South Korea.

“It’s a big deal,” said Lt. Col. Eric Lund, a preventive medicine consultant for 18th Medical Command. “All of Korea is waiting to see, did this happen or not.”

Officials won’t know for one to three weeks if Cho has bird flu because his symptoms could be caused by bacterial pneumonia, according to a statement from the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.

Cho complained of a fever and breathing problems on Sunday, after helping cull H5N1-infected birds on Friday and Saturday. The spokesman said his condition is improving and his fever is gone.

South Korea raised its avian flu alert to orange last week, the second-highest level in its four-tier alert system, after outbreaks spread to poultry farms across the country. Officials have destroyed more than 3.7 million poultry and 30 million eggs during this outbreak, Lund said.

Nearly 2,000 other South Korean soldiers have culled chickens and ducks since April 17. Those soldiers are being monitored every morning and evening for signs of H5N1, and are taking a 10-day course of Tamiflu, a flu treatment drug, the MND spokesman said.

The soldiers were given human influenza vaccinations before the culling, as well as protective uniforms, gloves and masks, which were destroyed after use.

South Korea has not asked the U.S. military for help with the culling and isn’t expected to make a request, 8th Army spokesman Lt. Col. B.J. Bailey said.

Lund said humans rarely catch the avian flu virus from birds, unless they work closely with them at farms or slaughterhouses. Humans rarely transmit it to each other, though experts expect that to change.

“We all think it’s a matter of when, not a matter of if, this bug gets wings and is able to be transmitted from human to human,” Lund said. “That’s the pandemic that everyone’s preparing for.”

Migrating water fowl typically spread the disease to domestic chickens, ducks and other fowl. Birds carry the virus in their saliva and feces, spread it easily to each other and die rapidly, usually within 48 hours of contracting the disease.

Ninety to 100 percent of birds infected with the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 die from it, Lund said. Sixty percent of humans who catch avian flu die from it, he said.

Of the 381 confirmed human cases of bird flu, 240 have died. Most of those cases were in Indonesia, China, Egypt, Vietnam and Thailand.

Bird flu symptoms

FeverCoughSore throatMuscle achesEye infectionsTrouble breathing or expanding lungsPneumoniaVisit a doctor if you show these symptoms and have been around dead or live birds, or someone with avian flu, said Lt. Col. Eric Lund, preventive medicine consultant with 18th Medical Command in Seoul, South Korea. Humans who contract avian flu are hospitalized and isolated from other patients, and treated with antimicrobials.

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