China complete openness as it fights bird flu

China has learned the lessons of the SARS outbreak and pledged complete openness as it fights bird flu in its multibillion domestic poultry flock, a top Chinese official said, while Pacific rim experts met in Australia for a second day Tuesday to discuss ways of fighting the virus.

"From SARS, we see that no ... information can be hidden," China's disease control director Qi Xiaoqiu said Monday through a translator while visiting the United States. "We have policies to encourage farmers to report possible outbreaks."

China was heavily criticized during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome for initially covering up the illness. Now Beijing says it is committed to quickly investigating and reporting possible bird flu cases to the public and world health groups. China has reported three bird flu outbreaks in poultry over the past month. No human cases have been reported.

At least 62 people have died of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in Southeast Asia since 2003, and concern is growing that H5N1 could mutate into a human flu virus that could spark a global pandemic.

China's domestic poultry population is more than 14 billion, Qi said, 50 percent of Asia's total, and more than half the birds are raised in small, scattered, often rural farms, making detection and treatment a challenge.

Qi said China has provided subsidies for farmers who quickly report sick birds to authorities. Once a case is found, Qi said, officials kill all birds within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) and vaccinate all birds within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

"There is great possibility for avian influenza breakouts in China," Qi said through a translator. "The Chinese government is very much committed to its prevention and control."

In Brisbane, a United Nations official said fighting bird flu in impoverished Southeast Asian nations could cost US$102 million (Ђ85 million) over the next two-to-three years.

"If the disease spreads from eastern Europe into Africa, then just for emergency support we'll require an additional $75 million (Ђ62.38 million)," said Subhash Morvaria from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's regional office in Bangkok.

Morvaria urged nations to fight the disease in birds as a first line of defense against it mutating into a human flu virus that could trigger a deadly global pandemic.

"As long as the disease remains in the domestic poultry sector, there is going to be a threat to humans. So the focus has to be in the animals. Even if a pandemic occurs, the problem will not go away as long as the disease remains in domestic poultry," he said, reports the AP. I.L.

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