Bird Flu Spreads as China Slammed for Patchy Disclosure


Vietnam maps part of virus as poultry sales ban takes effect

Asia continues to grapple with an outbreak of a bird flu virus that has killed at least 18 people, as strong doubts emerge about the reliability of China's internal reporting system, RFA's Mandarin and Vietnamese services report.

The outbreak, which has spread to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Laos, and China, has now been reported in 13 Chinese provinces. Official claims that no human infections have yet been seen in China have been called into question, however.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have both criticized Chinese health and agricultural authorities in recent weeks for failing to provide timely and detailed documentation of all the bird flu cases in the country.

Responding to their complaints, China's vice-minister for agriculture, Liu Jian, said: "We have already instructed departments under our control to report the situation before them in a scientific, law abiding, and sincere fashion."

And on Thursday, deputy health minister Wang Longde told reporters that no humans had yet contracted the virus, which WHO virologists estimate could kill three out of four people infected by it. "I can take responsibility for saying that there has as yet been no case of bird flu contracted by humans within China's territory," Wang said.

However, a report Thursday in Hong Kong's newsmagazine Next said the No.8 People's Hospital in the southern city of Guangzhou had admitted several patients showing symptoms like bird flu, including high fever and a cough. The patients, who numbered between 10 and 20, were housed in an isolated ward and had begun to be admitted three weeks previously from various districts with avian flu outbreaks.

The patients came from different parts of China, including Chaozhou and Guangxi. The hospital director confirmed to the magazine that the patients were exhibiting influenza-like symptoms, and that they had come from affected areas. But he stopped short of identifying them as bird flu patients, neither would he say whether they had been tested for the H5N1 virus.

In Vietnam, where the latest fatalities were announced Friday as a 6-year-old girl from southern Dong Nai province and a 24-year-old man from central Lam Dong province, the authorities have implemented a total ban on poultry sales, and slaughtered 14 million out of 250 million poultry.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese scientists are joining in the world-wide race to produce a vaccine for H5N1, which experts fear could cause a pandemic if it acquires the ability to jump from person to person.

"The Pasteur Institute in Ho Chi Minh City has initally completed the genetic map of the N1 part of the virus, which will be a great help to the effective production and use of vaccines against type A influenza in the country," a Vietnamese health official told RFA's Vietnamese service.

The scientist in charge of the project, Cao Bao Van, had immediately made her findings available to the WHO, the official said.

In a worrying development, pigs in Vietnam have tested positive for the bird flu virus the FAO said Friday. "Nasal swabs taken from pigs have been positive for H5N1," said Anton Rychener, Hanoi representative for the U.N. agency. "It continues to be under investigation and is of concern. We'll be bringing in an expert."

Health officials have said the bird flu sweeping Asia is contracted through direct contact with infected birds. But experts have said it's possible the virus jumped to humans through a mammal, perhaps pigs, which have been implicated in past human flu outbreaks.

Swine are often housed with poultry in traditional family farms in Asia, and are more genetically similar to humans than birds, providing a potential stepping stone for the virus' mutations.


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