China is still not sharing virus samples from animal bird flu outbreaks, the World Health Organization said on Friday, a day after Beijing announced the country’s third human death from the disease.
The woman, a 41-year old factory worker from the southeastern province of Fujian, died from the H5N1 form of the virus over a week ago, Xinhua news agency said.
She had apparently contracted the disease in an area that had not officially reported previous outbreaks among birds.
The WHO and other international health bodies have called on China to pass on animal samples of the bird flu virus for testing, which China has not done.
“It means that there is a question mark that hangs over the progress of the virus in China,” said Roy Wadia, the WHO’s Beijing-based spokesman. “It’s perhaps more significant to get animal viruses, because this virus is still something that is primarily in the animal sector.”
A Taiwan official complained on Friday his government had not received direct information from Beijing about the death in Fujian, directly across the Taiwan Strait from the self-governed island, and said China was deliberately withholding information.
“We have no first-hand information from the Chinese government on bird flu. We obtain information on China’s bird flu cases through friendly governments and media,” Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council told a news conference in Taipei.
“There is no cooperation between Taiwan and China. Mainland China is unwilling to deal with Taiwan on an equal basis.”
Taiwan is not a member of the WHO and a bid to gain observer status in May failed after member states accepted without a vote a call by China to take no action on Taipei’s request.
China says only sovereign states are entitled to join. Beijing claims Taiwan is a breakaway province to be eventually reunited with mainland China, by force if necessary.
Taiwan has said bird flu turned up in exotic birds smuggled by boat to the island from Fujian, where no outbreaks among birds have been reported.
But in early 2003, two Hong Kong residents who traveled to Fujian were diagnosed with H5N1 after they returned home, including a 33-year-old man who died. One of the man’s daughters had earlier died of pneumonia in a Fujian hospital.
The new outbreak showed how difficult the monitoring of bird flu was in China, Wadia said.
“If the animals in the area were sick and dying, and if they were dying in small numbers, it might have been very difficult to identify that as an outbreak,” he said.
“It just shows you that anything can happen at any time. It’s a very unpredictable situation, whether on the human side or the animal side,” Wadia said, adding it was too early to say if the WHO was considering sending a mission to Fujian.
China’s latest human bird flu case — the seventh this year — comes after two fatalities from the virus in Anhui province in eastern China.
WHO experts also believe a 12-year old girl in the southern province of Hunan probably died from bird flu in November, but China does not include her in its tally.
The WHO has said it was unclear why China was not sharing the virus samples, but it had not seen evidence of a SARS-style cover-up.
Some information has been shared this year, but only on paper, Wadia said.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture declined to comment.
Beijing agreed earlier this month to share virus samples isolated from human bird flu cases.
“It’s certainly a situation where the viruses need to be shared and not only shared but shared in a timely and consistent manner,” Wadia said.