WHO says China should prepare for more bird flu outbreaks

China should prepare for more bird flu epidemics in poultry and possibly more human cases as cold winter weather sets in, the World Health Organization said Thursday, as the government announced two more outbreaks in birds. The agency issued the warning despite praising China's handling of outbreaks in its vast poultry flocks and the country's first human cases reported Wednesday.

"We expect there will be more poultry outbreaks," said Henk Bekedam, the chief WHO representative in Beijing. "In this cold weather, the virus can survive longer in the climate and therefore have a bigger chance to infect poultry.

"The moment you have more poultry outbreaks, you will also expect more humans to be exposed to the poultry and therefore it (human cases) can indeed happen," he said.

Also Thursday, China reported two new outbreaks of bird flu in poultry hundreds of kilometers (miles) apart, both in regions that had previous outbreaks. One was in central China's Hubei province and the far northwestern region of Xinjiang, the government's official Xinhua News Agency said.

In Hubei, poultry started dying at a farm in the city of Xiaogan on Nov. 5, with 662 birds dead by Nov. 11, Xinhua said. In Hetian, a city in Xinjiang, 32 chickens died of suspicious causes on Monday, it said. All poultry within three kilometers (two miles) of the outbreak sites were culled, or 88,937 in all, Xinhua said.

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday that it had confirmed two human cases of the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu, a 24-year-old woman who died and a 9-year-old boy who recovered. It said the boy's 12-year-old sister, who died, was a suspected case.

Bird flu has killed at least 64 people in Asia since 2003 and experts worry that it could mutate into a form that can easily spread between people. Millions could die in a pandemic.

Bekedam said there was no sign in China that bird flu was being passed from person to person.

"There is not any evidence for human transmission so far," he said. "If there would be something like that, we would expect more people would be unexpectedly dying of very severe pneumonia."

Asked whether there was any sign that China was at risk for a pandemic, Bekedam said, "If there's evidence of human-to-human transmission, there will be small clusters. We are not at that stage."

While China is "extremely committed" in its fight against bird flu, he said it was necessary to be vigilant. "We need to closely monitor the virus," Bekedam said. "The key is that at a certain moment, there will be changes, that we will be able to detect it early."

That means strong surveillance systems and quick responses, he said. "That's also a challenge not only for China, but a challenge for the whole world," he said.

China denied that it was covering up any human cases of bird flu, following criticism of its sluggishness of its reporting its outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which emerged in 2002. "The Chinese government has taken a very responsible attitude," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao. "It is not necessary for us to cover up."

When asked about a report on an overseas Chinese-language Web site that China was hiding hundreds of bird flu cases in humans, he said such reports were "baseless and groundless, and the WHO would not agree with the authenticity of this kind of information," reports the AP. I.L.

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