Thu, Dec 18, 2008 - Page 1 News List

COA denies bird flu outbreak, cover-up

CLUCKING LAWMAKERS The legislature’s Health, Environment and Labor Committee slammed the Department of Health for not being alert to the avian flu threat from China

By Meggie Lu and Shelley Huang  /  STAFF REPORTERS

A farmer in Changhua County’s Hsienhsi Township looks on as a sprinkler system sprays his poultry house with disinfectant yesterday following unconfirmed reports of chickens dying from bird flu in southern Taiwan.

PHOTO: TANG SHIH-MING, TAIPEI TIMES

The Council of Agriculture (COA) yesterday denied newspaper allegations that it had covered up an outbreak of bird flu.

However, the council said that a farm in Kaohsiung County was being investigated.

Deputy Council of Agriculture Minister Hu Sing-hwa (胡興華) made the comments in response to a report in the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister paper) yesterday that a Tainan chicken farm had culled its birds following the discovery of a H5N2 infection, and that the government wanted to cover up the outbreak to protect the launch of direct cross-strait transportation links.

Both the council and the Tainan County Government held press conferences yesterday to rebut the allegation.

The Taiwan Poultry Association also issued a press release saying that there have been no mass slaughterings in Tainan recently.

Hu said the untrue story could damage chicken farmers in Tainan County, which is heavily dependent on the poultry industry and has the most chickens in the country.

Hu said an incident was reported in Kaohsiung County on Oct. 21, in which several birds died from unknown causes.

“After the samples were examined, we found what we suspected to be the H5N2 virus. However, as the death rate of the birds was less than 3 percent — within the normal range for raised poultry — a 23-person expert panel decided that it was not an epidemic,” Hu said.

No respiratory tract infections had been found in the chickens, which is different from how bird flu progresses, he said.

“The panel decided that making a [rash] judgment would cause public panic,” he said.

Avian influenza has many different strains, including H5N1 and H5N2. The H5N1 is highly pathogenic, and can cause fever, coughing, sore throat, muscle aches, pneumonia or even death when transmitted from birds to humans.

Only a suspected H5N2 sample had been found in a Kaohsiung County chicken farm, Hu said, adding: “There is no documentation worldwide that H5N2 could be transferred to humans.”

The panel decided to closely monitor farms within a 3km radius, he said.

Tainan County Commissioner Su Huan-chih (蘇煥智) told a separate press conference that “a certain county has a sample currently under examination, but it seems like the results are not out yet … but Tainan County absolutely does not have [the bird flu] … This is for sure.”

“The [newspaper] report is not true, and Tainan’s chicken farmers are outraged,” he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on the Health, Environment and Labor Committee criticized the Department of Health (DOH) for not being on guard about the potential threat of avian flu from China.

The legislators questioned health officials on what standard procedures or communication channels there were with Chinese health authorities to monitor and control such viruses.

The Chinese Agriculture Ministry said on Tuesday that officials had begun destroying and vaccinating poultry after the virus was detected on a chicken farm in Dongtai City and another farm in Haian County, both in Jiangsu Province.

Hong Kong health authorities raised the bird flu alert level to “serious” last week following an outbreak at a farm that killed dozens of chickens. More than 80,000 chickens infected with the H5N1 strain have been culled there.

In addition, Indian officials in West Bengal confirmed an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu virus 10 days ago and begun massive culling operations. Cambodia also began culling poultry near Phnom Penh yesterday, five days after the WHO and the government confirmed a young man from the area had H5N1 bird flu.

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