WHO to help China investigate possible human cases of bird flu

The World Health Organization said Monday it would help China investigate possible human cases of bird flu, while officials stepped up anti-flu measures, destroying 6 million fowl and closing all 168 live poultry markets in Beijing.

Authorities in Beijing also went door-to-door seizing chickens and ducks being raised in private homes, while Shanghai banned sales of live ducks, quail and other birds, officials said.

The Chinese government said Sunday it was reopening an investigation into whether bird flu killed a 12-year-old girl and sickened two people last month in cases that originally were ruled not to have been caused by the virus. If confirmed, they would be China's first human cases of the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu.

WHO and Chinese officials were discussing what role WHO should play, said Roy Wadia, a spokesman in Beijing for the agency. He said WHO could offer help in field work, lab testing and other areas.

A decision is expected in a few days, and then "hopefully we'll have the WHO experts come to China much sooner rather than later," Wadia said.

However, he said the final results of any tests could take months.

China has had no confirmed human infections in its latest round of outbreaks. But it has imposed increasingly strict measures following warnings that a human case was inevitable if China can't stop outbreaks among its 5.2 billion chickens, ducks and other poultry. Experts are especially worried about China because of the vast scale of its poultry industry and because three major migration routes for wild birds pass over it. Scientists fear wild birds might spread the virus across borders.

Specialists worry that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a strain that could spread from person to person, setting off a pandemic that could kill millions. The virus has killed at least 62 people across Southeast Asia.

In Liaoning province, east of Beijing, authorities have destroyed poultry in 15 villages near the site of an outbreak that killed 8,940 chickens, the Xinhua News Agency said.

The culling was unusually large by Chinese standards, but Xinhua said it was carried out because of rules requiring the destruction of all birds within three kilometers (two miles) of an infection site.

Armed police and health workers in protective suits were guarding the villages, the China Daily newspaper said.

In Beijing, authorities closed live poultry markets and vaccinated 20 million birds as a precaution, though the city has no suspected bird flu cases, said Liu Yaping, deputy director-general of the Chinese capital's Agriculture Bureau.

Health workers were patrolling zoos, lakes and parks looking for sick or dead birds, she said at a news conference.

Authorities in Beijing were confiscating chickens and ducks from private homes, said Wang Bin, a veterinary official. He said the capital, whose territory includes large sections of countryside, had a total of 24 million chickens, ducks and other poultry as of the end of October, though he didn't say how many were in private homes.

China has reported four bird flu outbreaks in poultry since Oct. 14. The 12-year-old girl who died Oct. 17 in Hunan developed a high fever after coming into "close contact with sick birds," Xinhua said. Her 9-year-old brother was hospitalized with similar symptoms but recovered.

The third suspected case was a 36-year-old teacher in the same county who reportedly fell ill after chopping raw chicken, Xinhua said. He was also recovering.

"The possibility of human infection of the highly deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu cannot be ruled out," Xinhua said, citing an unnamed Health Ministry spokesman.

It said 192 people who had contact with the three patients were under medical observation but didn't say whether they were in hospitals or give any other details.

Wadia, the WHO spokesman, said it was not unusual for someone thought to be infected with a virus such as H5N1 to initially test negative but later test positive.

Blood samples taken shortly after exposure to the virus may not be conclusive because the body hasn't had time to make enough antibodies, requiring more samples to be taken later, he said. Wadia said WHO didn't know what samples might remain from the dead girl, whose body was cremated in line with Chinese practice, reports the AP. I.L.

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