10/14/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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China: an incubator of bird flu

Preventing poultry from contact with wild birds is critical. However it is no easy task to monitor small farms in southern China. There is the danger that the virus hits the Indian subcontinent.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – At least two of the three most dangerous viruses to emerge in the last century (SARS and bird flu) were born in rural areas in southern China, where farmers and animals live in close proximity. Now, through migrating birds, the virus has crossed the mountains.

Malik Peiris, microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong who studied these two viruses closely, says that a large part of the global population is concentrated in this area, living in close contact with chickens, ducks, pigs, water birds, animals which are "important in the generation of these pandemic viruses… not only in China, but in the entire southeast Asian region".

Guangdong, in southern China, is dotted with small farms with pigs living in the open air, chickens and ducks which roam about, the perfect "ecological system for the emergence of new diseases," says Paul Chan, a microbiologist at the University of China.

Other experts draw attention to a lack of medical assistance in Chinese rural areas. Sick farmers avoid going to hospitals and specialists both because they are only found in cities and because they would have to pay for each visit and for medicine, which cost far more than they could afford.

The H5N1 virus which causes bird flu struck a human being for the first time in 1997. Within a few years, the disease became endemic in many Asian zones, where it has killed 60 people since 2003. The infection worsened this year with the contagion of migrating birds. Experts predict the virus will spread in Europe and Africa within the next two migration seasons. It has already reached northern China, then Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia and finally Turkey and the Danube delta in Romania. It has also been found in the south-west regions of Xinjiang and Tibet and there are fears it could soon reach Nepal and the Indian subcontinent.

Health experts warn that measures to avoid contact between chickens and migratory and wild birds should be taken. However it is difficult to enforce respect for such rules in all small farms, where the population continues to live in the same way as former generations.

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