China’s Chances to Stop Bird Flu Narrowing

by John Ruwitch – Reuters News

China’s Chances to Stop Bird Flu Narrowing – WHO

Fri January 30, 2004 11:09 PM ET BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s window of opportunity to stop the spread of bird flu is narrowing, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned as the country stepped up checks on poultry nationwide for signs of the deadly virus.

China on Friday confirmed outbreaks among farm birds in two provinces, Hubei and Hunan, to be the lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu, and announced new suspected infections in two other provinces and the booming city of Shanghai.

“We have repeatedly said there is a brief window of opportunity to act within China. This latest news strongly suggests that the window is getting smaller with each passing day,” said WHO disease surveillance specialist Julie Hall.

Earlier this week, authorities confirmed an outbreak in the southern region of Guangxi, bordering Vietnam as the H5N1 strain, which has killed at least eight people in Thailand and Vietnam and spread rapidly to 10 Asian countries.

China has been culling poultry within three km (two miles) of infected farms, vaccinating birds within five km (three miles) and established a national command headquarters, headed by Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, to battle the disease.

On Saturday it also halted exports from Anhui, Guangdong and Shanghai, following bans on shipments abroad from the other infected areas.

The World Health Organization, however, has requested more information on China’s use of vaccines to fight the flu, amid concerns they could contribute to its spread.

“There is a possibility that vaccinating birds with imperfectly made or inappropriately tailored vaccines may sometimes offer them a limited amount of protection, that could mask an H5N1 avian influenza infection,” it said in a statement on Saturday.

“In such cases, the birds might not die, but could get sick, shed the virus and eventually infect other birds in the flock.”

SAFETY FIRST

The WHO was also concerned about the environmental impact of the bird culls and urged that people involved “take suitable safety precautions” to help prevent the possibility that they might be infected.

Controlling outbreaks in China, expected to produce some 10.1 million tonnes of poultry in 2004, is worrisome to health experts because nearly four out of five chickens, ducks and other fowl are raised on household farms, where peasants live in close proximity with their animals.

The bird flu problem in the world’s most populous nation, WHO representative in China Henk Bekedam said, “will be a far much bigger challenge than we have seen in other countries so far.”

China has stepped up its response to the flu’s spread. The Commerce Ministry issued an urgent notice calling on all areas to strengthen management of the poultry trade to help stop the spread of the avian flu.

The coastal province of Shandong, exports more than half the country’s poultry, stepped up port quarantine measures and set up a crisis team of experts to handle emergencies, Xinhua said.

The provincial animal husbandry department has ordered medical checks on all poultry products on the market in Shandong, which exports most of its poultry Japan and Korea. The countries have banned imports from China and other affected areas.

And the capital Beijing halted all live poultry sales at one of its biggest produce markets. (Additional reporting by Tamora Vidaillet)

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