China attempts to allay fears of bird flu epidemic


CHINESE HEALTH authorities have tried to calm anxieties about a bird flu epidemic after a 39-year-old bus driver in Shenzhen in the south of the country died of complications from the H5N1 virus on Saturday.

The man’s death, surnamed Chen, was China’s first reported human case of the deadly disease in 18 months. After genetic analysis, health officials said the strain contracted by Mr Chen cannot spread from person to person.

“It is still not transmissible between people,” the Shenzhen Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said.

“The virus found in the patient was 90 per cent similar to H5N1 viruses previously isolated in ducks in China, which suggested that the man was very likely to have been infected through direct contact with a bird.”

Bird flu could potentially cause a deadly pandemic, health officials at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention say. Since 2003, more than 500 people have been infected with the strain worldwide and about 60 per cent have died, according to the Atlanta-based agency.

The virus is normally found in birds but can jump to people. And the big fear is that it could mutate and spread between humans.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently issued a stern warning to scientists who said they had engineered ways to make H5N1 into an easily transmissible form capable of causing lethal human pandemics.

The WHO says their work carries significant risks and must be tightly controlled.

The work, by two leading flu research teams in the Netherlands and the United States, prompted US security advisers to call for the research to be suppressed. They feared that publishing details could give terrorists the capacity to make a bio-terror weapon.

Fears of a pandemic are particularly prevalent in Asia, where there are heavily concentrated population centres, especially in places like Hong Kong.

China is a major risk as it has the world’s biggest poultry population and chickens in rural areas are often kept close to humans.

The victim, who lived in Shenzhen just across the border from Hong Kong, died from multi-organ failure a week after being admitted to hospital with a fever brought on by the virus, state media reported.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection has said the strain found in the deceased was similar to that recently found in wild birds in Hong Kong. An genetic analysis also found that the virus can be treated by amantadine, a common anti-viral drug.

While he had no direct contact with poultry in the month before being taken ill, there were reports he liked to jog in a nature reserve populated by numerous migrating birds.

Hong Kong culled 17,000 chickens at a wholesale poultry market two weeks ago after a dead chicken tested positive for H5N1 avian virus. It also suspended imports of live chickens from the mainland for 21 days in an attempt to prevent the disease spreading.

In December, thousands of chickens were culled in Shenzhen after three birds tested positive for the H5N1 virus.