China has announced further cases of avian flu�which has so far killed eight people in Asia�in the central provinces of Hubei and Hunan, sparking bird culls and quarantine measures, RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin services report.

The Ministry of Agriculture received the report Friday from the National Avian Flu Reference Laboratory confirming outbreaks of the virus among poultry in two cities�Wuxue and Wugang.

Suspected cases have also appeared in the eastern province of Anhui, Guangdong province in the south, and in the Nanhui district of Shanghai. The announcement was carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The outbreaks of the H5N1 virus were confirmed as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned there could be more cases than reported because of surveillance weaknesses. Experts fear that China�widely condemned for covering up the outbreak of SARS for several months�could become a huge incubator for the virus that has hit 10 Asian countries and led to the slaughter of millions of poultry.

However, Chinese officials said that so far no cases of bird flu had been reported in humans. "People who were in close contact with infected poultry have undergone meticulous medical examination and observation, but no human infections have been spotted," Xinhua quoted vice-minister of public health Wang Longde as saying.

Poultry slaughter and quarantine measures have been taken in those areas and the suspected avian influenza-hit poultry have been delivered to relevant organizations for medical monitoring, it said.

The report comes after the laboratory confirmed that duck deaths in the southern region of Guangxi reported by RFA's Mandarin service were indeed caused by the H5N1 strain of the virus.

Inspection teams from the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Public Health, and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, had gone to bird flu-affected areas to supervise local prevention and control work, Xinhua said.

The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Public Health have reported the new suspected cases to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the health and agricultural departments in Hong Kong and Macau, it said.

The WHO has warned that while humans have so far only caught the H5N1 virus through contact with infected birds or their droppings, it could claim millions of lives if it mutates into a form that can be spread from person to person. Virologists estimate that more than three-quarters of people infected with the H5N1 strain of influenza are likely to die.

In Vietnam, where at least three people are thought to have died from the virus, the outbreak has already had an impact on lunar New Year celebrations, where chicken is traditionally eaten, and on food imports.

During the days after the Tet celebrations, beef prices in Ho Chi Minh City have doubled, with many restaurants turning away customers desperately seeking an alternative to chicken. The beef shortage has prompted the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture to import an extra 10,000 cattle from Australia to meet increasing demand.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 27, Kentucky Fried Chicken, one of the few U.S. fast-food chains in Vietnam, said it had closed all eight of its outlets in Ho Chi Minh City in order to switch to a fish menu.

Nguyen Chi Kien, KFC's Vietnam deputy country director, told RFA: "We are looking for substitute non-chicken materials, such as fish. KFC in Asian and American can be different, according to the local products of each area, so in Vietnam we will have fish burgers."

Economic concerns were among the top priorities of ministers and officials from the affected nations of Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, who attended talks on the avian flu outbreak in Bangkok this week. Taiwan and Pakistan have reported weaker strains of the virus.

Asia's tourism industry was seriously hit by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the winter of 2002-2003, and officials are unlikely to impose restrictions on travel unless the virus proves able to jump from person to person.

WHO has said that 11 pharmaceutical companies have volunteered to help develop a human vaccine, but that it will take at least four months to produce if a pandemic is declared. #####


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