30th Jun 2006, BANGKOK: News from the frontline of the struggle to contain bird flu Asia is not good. China cannot determine how the H5N1 virus infected two men, while WHO is suspecting that the disease may have been present in the country already back in 2003, when it was mixed up with SARS. Meanwhile, Myanmar is only letting on now about the extent of a bird flu outbreak that struck its poultry in March. The reticence from several quarters about the spread of the virus is a major obstacle in research for plans aimed at containing infection.
Guangdong health officials yesterday admitted they could not rule out the possibility of more human bird flu cases in the province, since it was proving difficult to trace the sources of infection in recently sick patients. Huang Fei, deputy director of the Guangdong Health Department, said a 31-year-old Shenzhen man was still in a critical condition and health experts could not determine how he had been infected. Both he and another man, who died in Guangzhou, contracted the H5N1 virus, although there were no outbreaks among poultry.
The latest cases are all the more worrying given suspicions that bird flu may have been present in China already since 2003. The World Health Organsiation (WHO) is seeking clarification about this after eight Chinese scientists discovered through retrospective analysis that the death, three years ago, of a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army had been caused by bird flu and not SARS, as was suspected, although not proven, at the time.
Last week, WHO sent a dispatch to the Chinese Health Ministry, asking it to shed light on the real extent H5N1 in human beings: exact information is needed about how many retrospective analyses were carried out and their result. Traditionally, China has regarded public health as a state secret. Beijing admitted to its first human case of bird flu in October 2005.
Meanwhile, on 28 June, Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong signed an agreement to exchange information about the sickness and to collaborate in possible emergencies.
On 23 June, Myanmar announced plans to help its poultry industry recover from an outbreak of bird flu earlier this year that the government says is now under control. State-run media said the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries “would offer” the 545 affected farms new stocks of birds and poultry feed. The authorities did not give further details, although the measure probably consists of sale feed at lower prices.
The military junta running the country took three months to come up with a compensation package, but it has not yet established when it will be launched. A bird flu epidemic was recorded in 13 towns in the divisions of Mandalay and Sagaing, in early March. Exactly one month later, the government announced it had contained the virus. The figures published on occasion of the launch of the compensation package are the first official toll since April of damage caused by the virus. It said 342,000 chickens and 320,000 quail were culled in the aftermath, with 180,000 eggs and 1.3 tons of poultry feed also destroyed. In financial terms, this equates to a loss for the industry of US 2,448). No human cases have been reported in Burma so far.
In Myanmar, there are only four labs that can test for bird flu, two in Rangoon and two in Mandalay. The two cities are also the only places with facilities to quarantine people.
There is better news from Thailand. On 28 June, the Health Minister, Phinij Jarusombat, revealed the results of testing on two children aged 10 and three in Sukhotha province. They were not suffering from bird flu but from simple flu. Thailand has not registered any cases of H5N1 infection since the beginning of the year. However, the country is still on high alert. The domestic animal control office of Sukhothai culled more than 5,000 chickens and announced the area to be under surveillance “until further notice”.