12/27/2005, 00.00
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Bird flu: in China WHO says many human cases unreported

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) official, China's healthcare system is inadequate; awareness about the problem remains poor in rural areas. Beijing still has not provided the WHO with virus samples. Authorities are in a high state of alert in Saudi Arabia in anticipation of hajj; 622,000 pilgrims are already in the country.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned China that human cases of the bird flu might be going unreported because of its weak healthcare system. It urged Beijing to share samples from its bird flu outbreaks in birds.


Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said at a press conference on December 23 that no virus samples have been made available from China's 31 reported outbreaks in poultry this year, despite requests to the Ministry of Agriculture.

These samples are essential if we are to "know what kind of changes the virus is undergoing, which is very, very vital in fighting against any potential pandemic," Omi said.

"Time is of the essence," he added, and it is not clear why Beijing has not shared samples.

Scientists fear the H5N1 strain of the virus could change from a disease that affects mostly birds into one that can pass easily between people, sparking a pandemic.

Out of 73 known fatalities in Asia, China has had two people die from bird flu in China and four other confirmed human cases who survived the disease.

The People's Republic was widely criticised in 2003 for its cover up of the SARS virus, contributing to its eventual spread to 8,000 people around the world.

Omi said there was no evidence of a similar cover up in the case of bird flu outbreaks, but that a lack of training and capacity in the countryside meant human cases were probably under-reported.

"The quality of the surveillance is not sufficiently good," he said. "That is a fact. So therefore in my view it is conceivable that the system could miss some of the cases. I don't know how many. [That] is anybody's guess."

During his visit in China, Omi visited the village in the central province of Hunan where a nine-year-old boy survived the disease. He said he found that there was no awareness there about how to avoid infection or about the threat of a global pandemic.

"The boy that I met [. . .] did not know anything about this," Omi said. "For him, chickens are friends, so he touched. But if he had known about this, he may have avoided them," he said, adding that the family's stock of about 20 birds had died of the disease and that the boy's dead sister is a suspected case. Her remains were however cremated before any tissue sample could be taken for testing.

One of the major challenges in fighting the disease in China is that about 70 per cent of its poultry are spread across backyard farms, meaning a massive effort would be required to educate villagers throughout the country.

Vietnam. New outbreaks of infected birds are reported in the country. On December 26, ducks were reported dead in the central province of Quang Tri, one of 14 areas where the bird flu emergency had been declared over.

Since October 1, a total of 21 Vietnamese cities and provinces have been hit by bird flu, which has killed or led to the forced culling of over 3.7 million fowls.

Saudi Arabia. Authorities in the country are on high alert as Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, is scheduled to start the second week of January.

Health Minister Hamad al-Manei was quoted as saying that the 622,000 pilgrims who had already arrived were "clear of any virus or illness" but that "[a]nyone found to have an illness [will be] sent back to his country immediately".

Around 2.5 million pilgrims from over 160 countries head for Makkah each year, including those affected by the H5N1 virus.

The kingdom has spent 25 million riyals (US$ 6.7 million) to treat and prevent flu ahead of the hajj season.  (PB)

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See also
Human-to-human bird flu transmission feared in Indonesia
WHO: China may have unidentified bird flu outbreaks
A new death from bird flu in Vietnam
More outbreaks and human bird flu cases expected in China
Bird flu feared more virulent in Eastern Europe than in Asia


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