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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 21:24 GMT
Can China cope with bird flu?
By Stephen Cviic
BBC News

A chicken seller in Beijing
Experts say more bird flu outbreaks are expected in China
China has announced its first human death from bird flu, raising renewed fears about the possible spread of the disease among birds and humans.

Up until now, all of the human fatalities from the H5N1 strain have been in East Asia, most of them in Vietnam and Thailand.

But when the disease affects people in China, the world's most populous country, it is bound to attract even more attention.

The woman who is known to have died of it was a poultry worker in the eastern province of Anhui.

The other confirmed case was a boy in Hunan province who has since recovered; his sister died, but because she was cremated immediately afterwards, it is impossible to know what the cause of death was.

The virus is entrenched... we expect more outbreaks
Henk Bedekam
World Health Organization

China has been grappling with eleven separate outbreaks of bird flu, also known as avian influenza, among fowl, and some human cases were expected.

Henk Bedekam, the World Health Organization's representative in China, says the time of year is also favouring the continuation of the disease.

"We're moving towards winter and we know that [the virus] can longer survive in the winter when it's cold, so we're not surprised that we have now here and there some outbreaks.

"We know that in this part of the world - of course not for the whole of China as well, but for parts of China - that the virus is entrenched, and that means especially in the cold months that we expect some more outbreaks."

Human infection 'rare'

Bird flu has already spread from Asia into Europe. Outbreaks have been reported in Turkey, Romania and Croatia.

However, Europe has had no human cases, and all the ones in Asia seem to have been the result of direct contact with animals.

Health officials with a bird flu vaccine in China
It is doubted whether China has enough vaccine for 14bn birds

Dick Thompson, of the WHO in Geneva, says there is no evidence that that is changing.

"The one thing that we are worried about of course and we've been worried about for some time is that this virus will change in a way that will allow it to move easily from one human to another.

"That hasn't happened. It continues to be an extremely rare event for a human to become infected with this disease."

But of course the threat of avian influenza is a worry for farmers everywhere.

In China, millions of birds have been culled, and now the authorities have come up with an even more ambitious plan: to vaccinate every single one of the 14 billion farm birds in the country.

But is this actually possible?

Enough vaccine?

"I think logistically that's an enormous nightmare, particularly given that as far as European scientists are concerned, any vaccine would have to be done twice, with one week between both vaccines," says Roger Wait of the agricultural newsletter, Agra Facts.

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"You also have other problems, such as the vaccine itself - do you have enough vaccine in China? One could imagine there could be a problem with bogus vaccines or imitation vaccines getting into the system somehow.

"And then of course you've got other issues such as trade and a question mark over whether the vaccine actually kills the virus itself."

So, there is not a global consensus that vaccination of birds represents the best answer.

Experts do believe, however, that trying to control the movement of domestic fowl is important.

Ultimately, though, once the uncertainties surrounding wild bird migration and virus mutation are factored in, it is fair to say that nobody really knows how much effect avian influenza will eventually have on the world's economy and its population.


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