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Bird flu kills girl in China; U.N. boosts fight

A nine-year-old girl has died of bird flu in China, state media said, as the United Nations stepped up efforts to battle the rapidly spreading virus.
/ Source: Reuters

A nine-year-old girl has died of bird flu in China, state media said on Wednesday, as the United Nations stepped up efforts to battle the rapidly spreading virus.

The girl, China’s 10th known death from bird flu, died on Monday night in the eastern province of Zhejiang, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Her death comes days after the government confirmed that a 32-year-old man had died from the H5N1 virus in the southern province of Guangdong, near Hong Kong, triggering alarm there.

“The epidemic situation is very severe. Right now is spring, when there is a high chance of bird flu outbreaks due to the frequent movement of migratory birds. This epidemic has not been effectively controlled worldwide,” China’s deputy agriculture minister Yin Chengjie told reporters.

The virus has spread rapidly since the beginning of February, killing birds in more than 15 new countries as it moves deeper into Europe and Africa.

Albania on Wednesday confirmed its first case of H5N1 in a chicken found in the southern Sarande coastal region, close to the border with Greece.

Nigeria said on Tuesday that highly pathogenic bird flu had spread to three new states, including an outbreak in Port Harcourt, the main city in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

The World Health Organization (WHO), confirming the Chinese girl’s death, said  bird flu has infected 175 people, killing 96 of them since 2003.

Scientists fear it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates into a form that passes easily among people, triggering a pandemic. Millions could die and economies would be crippled for months.

To try to combat the growing threat, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is to play a greater role in fighting bird flu, becoming a “global clearing house” for efforts to stem the spread of the virus, it said on Tuesday.

The United States and the European Union have backed the formation of what a senior U.S. official called an “emergency operations center” at the FAO’s Rome headquarters.

Funding will come from a pot of almost $2 billion pledged by wealthy nations at an international conference in Beijing in January. The United States would provide experts to help run the center and expects other nations to follow suit.

Questions over spread
In China, the latest human deaths have raised questions over how the virus is spreading.

The 32-year-old man is the first bird flu death in an urban center in China and occurred in an area where there have been no reports of the disease in birds. He was believed to have contracted the virus at a poultry market.

The dead girl, from Anji County, had visited relatives who kept poultry, and some chickens raised there had died during at least one of her visits, Xinhua said.

Zhong Nanshan, director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said both victims might have been infected by chickens carrying the virus but not sickened by it.

“There is a possibility there could be human cases of H5N1 in places without outbreaks of the disease in birds. That is, there could be chickens carrying the virus but which are not sick themselves and they can infect people,” Zhong told reporters in Beijing.

Julie Hall, in charge of the WHO’s outbreak response team in China, said studies were needed into whether China’s ambitious program to vaccinate billions of poultry might be masking the virus, making it harder to detect.

Trading practices at markets as well as the role of migratory birds also merit further scrutiny, she told Reuters on the sidelines of a WHO meeting in Geneva.

The appetite for poultry has nose-dived in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, despite politicians’ publicly eating poultry and the WHO reminding people that well-cooked chicken and eggs are safe.