Wed, Feb 04, 2009 - Page 1 News List

China bird flu outbreak feared

DEAD BIRDS After chickens, a goose, a duck and other birds washed ashore in Hong Kong, the chairman of a medical association said there may be a ‘terrible’ secret

DPA AND BLOOMBERG , HONG KONG

The discovery of dead birds brought a warning from one of the territory’s top bird-flu experts that “something very terrible” could be happening in China.

China has suffered an outbreak of bird flu among poultry, but Beijing has yet to report such an incident, said Lo Wing-Lok (勞永樂), a legislator and chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association.

“There’s no doubt of an outbreak of bird flu in China, though the government hasn’t admitted it,” Lo said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“Inefficient communication between the Hong Kong and mainland authorities is an ongoing problem. Hong Kong has not been well-informed by the mainland,” Lo said.

Eight people have been infected with the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in China this year, the most in a single month since 2003, when the virus was first detected in humans, the WHO said.

On Monday alone, the carcasses of one goose, five chickens, a duck and two other birds were found, bringing to 12 the number of dead birds found on Lantau since Thursday.

Three of the 12 dead birds found on Hong Kong Lantau tested positive for the strain, stoking concerns the virus is circulating widely among birds Guangdong Province.

“This is suddenly something very serious,” Lo said. “We have to confirm the source of these dead birds, whether it is local or from the mainland. If they are from the mainland, something very terrible could be happening across the border.”

China hasn’t reported any cases of H5N1 among birds since December. The human cases show the virus must be circulating among birds, said Vincent Martin, a senior technical advisor on avian flu for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

“There must be some cases which have not been reported,” Martin said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It’s not normal that we don’t receive any confirmation or any reports of outbreaks in poultry.”

“We are concerned about the possibility of the virus being present in birds in Guangdong, given the sheer numbers of chickens and ducks there and their proximity to humans,” Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for the WHO, said in an e-mail.

Still, human infections in China so far this year are “within expectations,” Cordingley said.

International health officials have been monitoring H5N1 for more than a decade for signs it could mutate into a form that is easily spread between humans.

A flu pandemic of avian or other origin could kill 71 million people worldwide and lead to a “major global recession” costing more than US$3 trillion, said a worst-case scenario outlined by the World Bank in October.

H5N1 has infected at least 404 people in 15 countries since 2003, killing 63 percent of them, the Web site of the Geneva-based WHO said. Of 38 confirmed cases in China so far, 25 have been fatal.

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