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China reports possible human bird flu cases

China says it has asked for outside help to test three possible cases of bird flu in humans. Meanwhile, scientists and government representatives are preparing for a strategy session in Geneva amid fears of a possible worldwide flu pandemic among humans.
A Chinese health worker in a protective suit stands next to a chicken pen at the Huaneng Chicken Farm, about four miles southwest of a farm that suffered a bird flu outbreak this past month in China.Elizabeth Dalziel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

China said Sunday it had asked for outside help to test three possible cases of bird flu in people, while scientists and government representatives prepared for a strategy session in Geneva amid fears of a possible worldwide flu pandemic among humans.

China said it asked the World Health Organization to help determine whether the virus caused the death of a 12-year-old girl and infected her 9-year-old brother and a 36-year-old middle school teacher in Wantang, a village in central Hunan province.

Chinese experts "cannot rule out the possibility of human transmission of H5N1 bird flu" in the cases of the three, who came down with pneumonia last month following a bird flu outbreak among poultry in their village, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The girl's brother and the teacher recovered. Chinese officials initially said the girl and her brother tested negative for the bird flu virus.

Also Sunday, officials finished destroying 370,000 birds in Badaohao, a village in China's Liaoning province, after bird flu killed 8,940 chickens there.

China has had four outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu among poultry in the past three weeks, but there have been no confirmed human deaths. The virus has killed at least 62 people across Southeast Asia.

Since late 2003, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has ravaged poultry stocks across Asia and jumped from birds to humans. Most of the human deaths have been linked to close contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus could mutate into a form easily passed among humans and spark a global pandemic.

Pandemic strategy session
A series of meetings throughout the world are culminating in a three-day strategy session starting Monday in Geneva. More than 300 scientists, public health experts, veterinarians and government officials are expected to share what they have learned and plan the next steps.

"While we cannot predict when or if the H5N1 virus might spark a pandemic, we cannot ignore the warning signs," said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's top official in charge of monitoring bird flu. "For the first time in human history, we have a chance to prepare ourselves for a pandemic before it arrives."

Efforts to develop a vaccine have been hampered because it is unknown exactly what form the deadly virus would take. Many governments are stocking up on antiviral drugs that work against regular influenza and are believed to be the best existing weapon against a bird flu pandemic.

Japan was mulling a $2.6 million donation to the WHO to help combat bird flu and other infectious outbreaks in developing countries, the national newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported Sunday, citing government officials it did not name.

The world has seen four flu pandemics since 1890, the last one in the late 1960s. An ordinary flu epidemic kills thousands of people, but pandemics can be much worse. The 1918-1919 pandemic, known as the Spanish flu, killed up to 50 million people, WHO officials have said.

The death toll from a new pandemic could range from 5 million to 150 million people, said Dr. David Nabarro, a senior WHO expert appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in September to coordinate the global response.

The WHO considers a death toll of 7.4 million a more reasonable forecast, said Dick Thompson, the agency's flu spokesman.

A World Bank representative will chair a session in Geneva on how to pay for preparations at global, national and regional levels.

The cost could be enormous. Last week, President Bush proposed that the United States spend $7.1 billion to prepare for a flu pandemic.

North Korea, meanwhile, announced it was taking measures to prevent an outbreak.

Ministries have intensified quarantine at ports and airports, the official Korean Central News Agency said. Chicken farms also are barring visitors from entering and are sterilizing coops and vehicles, the agency said.

Also Sunday, authorities said tests determined that bird flu did not kill 100 pigeons in the Malaysian town of Bidor, about 75 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. More tests were being conducted to find the cause of death, said Hawari Hussein, an Agriculture Ministry official.

And in a policy aimed at preventing an outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong, the territory's government announced it would fine people $193 for feeding pigeons at public housing buildings.