China's public needs to be educated about bird flu, WHO says

China's public still needs to be educated about how to spot early signs of bird flu in poultry to prevent a further spread of the disease among birds and people, the World Health Organization said Monday. A WHO team visiting Anhui province, the location of the country's two reported human fatalities, found that the victims, both farmers, had been sickened through close contact with infected poultry although no outbreaks were reported, said Julie Hall, an infectious disease expert at the WHO office in Beijing.

This shows "there's still an issue of public awareness of what to look for when chickens get sick," Hall said.

Early reporting is key and farmers need to have adequate compensation as an incentive, she said. "And whenever there's a human case, it's important that there's a joint animal and human investigation," Hall said.

China was criticized for initially being unwilling to release information during its outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which began in 2002. Officials have vowed to be more aggressive and open in fighting bird flu.

The virulent H5N1 strain of the disease has killed at least 68 people in Asia since 2003. Experts have warned that it could mutate into a form easily passed between people and spark a pandemic that could kill millions around the world. Thousands of birds have died from bird flu in China and millions have been vaccinated in an effort to prevent repeated epidemics. Officials have reported 25 outbreaks in poultry since Oct. 19.

Three human cases have been confirmed, two fatal. A 9-year-old boy in the central province of Hunan has recovered.

The farmers in Anhui, both women, died last month after developing high fevers and pneumonia-like symptoms.

One was is Zongyang County and the other in Xiuning County, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) apart. A team of WHO and Chinese experts went to the homes of both patients, interviewed their relatives and visited local hospitals and provincial labs last week, Hall said, reports the AP. I.L.

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