China confirmed its first human cases of bird flu yesterday, adding to fears of a global pandemic in which millions of people could die.
China's Ministry of Health reported two cases in the central province of Hunan and one in eastern Anhui, the official Xinhua news agency said. The World Health Organization (WHO) said one of the victims in Hunan was a girl of 12 who died last month.
The spread of bird flu to people in the world's most populous country is a significant development. The deadly H5N1 form of bird flu has already killed more than 60 people in Asia and is endemic in poultry in parts of the region.
The WHO said it had been informed by China that a nine-year-old boy from Hunan Province suspected of having bird flu was indeed stricken by the H5N1 virus, as was his 12-year-old sister, who fell ill and died last month.
Last month, China reported that hundreds of chickens and ducks had died in Wantang village in Xiangtan County, near Hunan's provincial capital of Changsha. After mass culling and disinfection, the area was declared free of bird flu this week.
Chinese officials initially reported that the two children in Hunan had suffered pneumonia and not bird flu, but later invited international experts in to help investigate the cases.
The boy was discharged from hospital last weekend.
WHO spokesman Roy Wadia said the third case was identified as a woman in Anhui Province. Xinhua did not identify any of the victims.
"It's not a surprise. It shows that China like other countries that have bird flu in poultry can have human cases," Wadia said.
Wadia also said a teacher in Hunan had fallen ill with symptoms of pneumonia and was still considered a suspect bird flu case. A poultry worker in the northeastern province of Liaoning, where an outbreak was reported among domestic birds this month, also was considered a suspected case, he said.
The virus remains hard for people to catch and is still essentially a disease in birds. However, experts fear H5N1 could mutate into a form that passes easily among people, just like human influenza, putting millions of lives at risk.
Meanwhile, an official has been detained in a part of China severely affected by bird flu, on suspicion he gave chickens a clean bill of health even though he knew they were sick, state media said yesterday.
Zhao Yonghe, the head of the veterinary service in Badaohao village, in Liaoning Province, issued certificates to local farmers showing their poultry were fit and well, the Beijing Daily Messenger said.
He did this despite knowing that the chickens had in fact contracted the disease, according to the report.
The paper did not say why Zhao issued the certificates. Corruption is extremely common among the underpaid officials manning rural government offices.
Seven other officials in Liaoning have been given punishments including dismissals and demerits for dereliction of duty in the course of the current series of outbreaks, the paper said without elaborating.
Liaoning has so far confirmed three outbreaks of bird flu within the last month, making it the part of China apparently most seriously impacted since the virus returned to the country last month.