China confirmed its first two human cases of bird flu on the mainland Wednesday, including at least one fatality, as the government raced to vaccinate billions of chickens, ducks and other poultry in a massive effort to stop the spread of the virus.
The government suspected a third case of bird flu in a 12-year-old girl who died, but her body was cremated before it could be tested.
The Health Ministry confirmed cases in a poultry worker who died and a 9-year-old boy who fell ill but recovered, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said the boy’s 12-year-old sister, who died, was recorded as a suspected case.
Experts are especially worried about the potential for bird flu to spread and mutate in China because of its vast poultry flocks and their close contact with people. It also is a major migration route for wild fowl, which experts say might be spreading the virus.
China has reported 11 outbreaks in chickens and ducks in the past month nationwide, prompting authorities to destroy millions of birds in an effort to contain the virus. The government also announced an ambitious effort Tuesday to vaccinate all the country’s more than 14 billion farm birds.
The Chinese government has responded quickly to public health threats after being criticized in 2003 for failing to respond to foreign pleas for information and cooperation at the start of its outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Since the SARS outbreak, Beijing has created disease testing laboratories and a national health warning network. It has promised to be more open about epidemics and to cooperate with other nations.
Dick Thompson of the WHO’s Communicable Disease Section told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the outbreaks in China represented “a very disturbing situation.”
“They have reported these outbreaks rapidly, they’ve been investigated promptly, the laboratory analysis was done under the supervision of WHO,” Thompson said from Geneva. “I think they’re doing the right things. It’s just disappointing that there’s so many human and animal outbreaks.”
The deadly H5N1 virus has killed at least 64 people in Asia since 2003.
The Health Ministry confirmed cases in a 24-year-old female poultry in the eastern province of Anhui who died and a 9-year-old boy in the central province of Hunan who fell ill but recovered, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said the boy’s 12-year-old sister, who died, was recorded as a suspected case.
Both areas reported outbreaks in poultry in the past month.
WHO helped re-examine cases
China had said the girl, her brother and a schoolteacher who fell ill at the same time tested negative for H5N1. But it later asked WHO to help re-examine the case. Agency experts traveled to Hunan this week.
Chinese investigators believe the girl died of bird flu but she did not meet WHO standards for a confirmed case because her body was cremated and could not be tested, said Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing. There was no official word on the teacher’s status.
Wadia said Chinese investigators made their decision on the girl based on her shared background with her brother and the circumstances of her illness.
The government had not previously disclosed there were any suspected human cases in Anhui, where an Oct. 20 outbreak in the city of Tiancheng killed about 550 birds.
Wadia said the poultry worker did not live near the site of that outbreak.
“She apparently had close contact with sick birds,” he said. “She died in a hospital. She was therefore tested adequately.”
Experts also are testing a poultry worker who fell ill in the northeastern province of Liaoning, which has suffered four outbreaks. All farm birds in the province were ordered vaccinated early this month, said Fu Jingwu, deputy director of the provincial Animal Health Supervision and Management Bureau.
He said the effort covered 320 million birds. The province also has destroyed more than 15 million chickens, ducks and other birds.
On Wednesday, officials took reporters on a tour of one area of Liaoning affected by the virus to show off disease-control measures. In the village of Qitaizi, the government destroyed 160,000 chickens after 40 were found dead Nov. 4.
“The chickens are gone but the disease might still be here,” said Zhao Suhai, a doctor at the village clinic.
More cooperation urged
Also Wednesday, the State Council, which is China’s Cabinet, discussed enacting regulations on bird flu prevention, epidemic monitoring and emergency contingency plans, state television said.
The council also said it would offer tax breaks and subsidies to help counter the effects of bird flu outbreaks.
Meanwhile, government ministers at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Busan, South Korea, urged more regional and international cooperation and response to combat bird flu.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged governments to improve communications and to encourage the private sector to help prepare for outbreaks before they happen.
“New global pandemics, like avian influenza, require new, concerted action,” she told APEC trade and foreign ministers.