10/31/2005, 00.00
CHINA - ASIA

Bird flu in China very serious, say official sources

Migrating birds can carry the infection anywhere. The death of a girl in Hunan is still the subject of debate. Beijing stands accused of "excessive use" of an antiviral drug which has led to resistance of the virus. New cases are reported in Japan and South-east Asia.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Alarm bells are ringing loudly in China because of migrating birds which can take bird flu anywhere. Meanwhile the World Health Organisation (WHO) is asking for more information about the death of He Yin, a 12-year-old girl from Wantang in Hunan.

On Saturday, Jia Youling, chief veterinary officer within the Agriculture Ministry, defined the situation as "extremely serious". Said Jia: "The movements of migrating birds are frequent and the virus they carry is highly pathogenic. In April, 6,345 birds died near Lake Qinghai. A total of 138,323 chickens were culled in the last three cases of infection in Mongolia Interior, Anhui and Hunan and the spread of infection was contained. "But it is unrealistic to believe that the country can absolutely eliminate the virus."

Meanwhile, a polemic between the Chinese health authorities and WHO continues. Chen Xinyi, vice director of the Health Ministry's department of disease control, insists that China did not have any cases of human infection in 2005 and that He Yin died of "pneumonia". However, he added that the disease, which also struck the deceased's brother, He Junlong – still in hospital – was "caused by unknown factors and we have sent experts on site to undertake better research".

Observers said those who were in close contact with the two children in Wantang were "placed in isolation" and that police were watching the house of the family and forbidding any contact. The epidemic among chickens in the village started more than 15 days ago, however it was declared only on 25 October. Thousands of hens and ducks were slaughtered.

Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, WHO spokeswoman in Beijing said once again that "we do not have indications in the Health Ministry report about which tests were carried out, which samples taken for testing and when they were undertaken". She added that the WHO wanted more information about the case and was offering its help in carrying out laboratory testing. The girl was cremated and there are doubts about whether all necessary tests were done beforehand to ascertain the cause of death.

China has 14.2 billion farmed poultry, which amounts to 20.8% of the global total; its boast is that it has only 1.5% of cases of infection.

Meanwhile scientists have confirmed that the H5N1 virus in Vietnam and Thailand is resistant to Amantadine, one of the two antiviral drugs useful for protecting human beings. They said an excessive use of the drug to vaccinate chickens has led to the development of resistant strains of the virus. China stands accused of having made indiscriminate use of the drug to vaccinate poultry and of having given it to neighbouring countries too. The other drug, Oseltamivir used for Tamiflu, is much more expensive. Jia admitted that Beijing used the drug but never "after the 2004 epidemic" as it has a less expensive vaccine. Experts say the drug is not readily available to other states in the area and that the mutation of the virus points to its extensive use.

Japan. In a large breeding farm in Ibaraki, 100km north of Tokyo, hens have presented anti-bodies to bird flu. It was not possible to ascertain the type of virus. Around 82,000 hens were culled. Japan was struck by the less devastating H5N2 virus in 2004.

Thailand. A new breeding ground of infection among poultry is found in the north-east province of Kalasin.

Indonesia. Anton Apriyantono, Agriculture Minister warned that the situation is "critical, because the virus has infected pigeons" which fly everywhere. The first sick pigeon was found last week in Belasi, a short distance away from the capital Jakarta. Results are expected to ascertain if the virus came from Padang Sambian, a village in Bali, so far immune.

Russia. The infection of many chickens has been verified in the districts of Novicikha, Bavevsky and Gryaznovo, in the Siberian region of Altai bordering Kazakhstan. (PB)

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