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China's Dirty Secret

China's reticence in sharing samples of the emerging strain may just be the tip of the iceberg.
by Kate Walker
UPI Correspondent
London (UPI) Nov 01, 2006
In an apparent failure to learn from the lessons of the 2003 SARS epidemic, the Chinese government has been holding back vital information relating to the emergence of a new strain of avian influenza, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

Over the past year tests conducted across China have revealed the emergence of a new dominant strain of avian influenza, called H5N1 Fujian-like. Despite the fact that 95 percent of virus samples collected in China between April and June of this year transpired to be H5N1 Fujian-like, the Chinese Agriculture Ministry has yet to provide the WHO with samples of the new virus, severely hampering the world body's ability to fight the disease.

In addition to becoming rampant in China's poultry, H5N1 Fujian-like has also been spotted in poultry flocks in Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand, and has caused some human cases of avian influenza in China.

Julie Hall, an infectious-disease expert at the WHO's Beijing office, told the International Herald Tribune: "There's a stark contrast between what we're hearing from the researchers and what the Ministry of Agriculture says. Unless the ministry tells us what's going on and shares viruses on a regular basis, we will be doing diagnostics on strains that are old."

According to Hall, the Agriculture Ministry last provided the WHO with virus samples from poultry in 2004 -- a shocking lack of consideration for the global battle to prevent an avian-influenza pandemic, as the best source of information in a disease stemming from poultry is the birds themselves.

"This is a new disease. Nobody knows how to tackle it, nobody in the world has all the answers. But if they share ... then we will all gain from that," the International Herald Tribune quoted Hall as saying.

"The ministry needs to tell us just how many substrains are circulating in China and whether some strains are dominant or becoming more dominant."

China's reticence in sharing samples of the emerging strain may just be the tip of the iceberg, despite the government's pledges of openness following the SARS fiasco that saw Chinese authorities deny such a problem existed in their country until the pneumonia had begun to spread.

A study conducted by a team of Chinese and American scientists published this week found that one in every 30 ducks and one in every 30 geese tested positive for the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. The team tested birds in Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan and Hunan provinces between June 2005 and June 2006.

In the same period the Chinese government reported only three official H5N1 outbreaks in poultry in those six provinces.

News of this new substrain should not cause undue concern, however. While it has been linked to human cases of avian influenza and has doubtlessly taken root in poultry in some Asian countries, there is no sign that it is more lethal than the existing H5N1 strain.

The WHO's Michael Perdue said, "If you look at the mortality rate and the disease, the Fujian-strain infections are no different."


Egypt this week confirmed its seventh death from avian influenza.

Amr Hamdi Abdel Wahi, the Egyptian Health Ministry's media spokesman, said, "In total, ever since the first human case of bird flu in Egypt was confirmed in March 2006, 15 infections have been reported, of whom eight have survived."

According to a statement by the ministry, the latest avian-influenza victim was a 39-year-old woman called Hanan Abul Magd, from a village in Gharbiyya province. She is believed to have become infected while slaughtering domestic birds that had fallen prey to the disease.

"With the onset of winter, and a new season of migration for birds, we are stepping up activities to ensure that there isn't a new wave of cases of avian flu," Abdel Wahi said.

"We trust that with these additional efforts, we will not witness a surge in casualties."

While many consider avian influenza to be a worry that has passed, the result of media hysteria that never transpired, statistics paint a very different -- and much grimmer -- picture.

The latest Egyptian death from avian influenza means that 2006 has seen 74 officially confirmed deaths so far -- the same number as was reported in 2004 and 2005 combined.

The rate of deaths has doubled this year from 2005 to one every four days.

Source: United Press International

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