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New Wave of Bird Flu Hits China's Poultry

Published on 2 July, 2006, Last updated at 03:13 GMT

2nd July 2006, ZHONGWEI: A new outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu reportedly has been discovered among poultry in China. The news surfaced on Saturday, as experts were re-examining whether a Chinese man may have died of the disease in 2003 -- two years before any human cases were reported in the country.

China has reported more than 30 bird flu outbreaks in poultry since October.

An area near Zhongwei, a city in the Ningxia region, is where the latest signs of H5N1 have emerged, according to a report by the government's Xinhua News Agency that cited the Agriculture Ministry. There was no mention of how many or what type of birds were involved.

The Ministry dispatched experts "to control any possible outbreak" in the area, while local authorities were disinfecting vehicles and people traveling in and out, according to Xinhua

Health Officials Kept in the Dark

At least 130 people worldwide have died from bird flu since it began decimating Asian poultry stocks in late 2003. Vietnam has suffered the highest death toll, with 42 people having fallen victim to the disease.

China reported its first human cases of bird flu in 2005, and.the country has identified 12 human fatalities from the disease since then. However, the Health Ministry is looking into whether a man who died in 2003 may have had bird flu rather than severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as initially believed, according to the World Health Organization.

The case was brought to public attention by a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine by a group of eight Chinese scientists.

Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing, said the 24-year-old victim died at a military hospital there. The incident has led some to question China's ability to spot emerging diseases and to keep international health bodies apprised.

Military hospitals, which answer to the secretive People's Liberation Army, figured prominently in the government's failure to disclose the true scale of the spread of SARS in 2003.

It "does raise the question of why the Ministry of Health was not told of this case," Wadia said Friday.

Early Cases Possibly Misdiagnosed

China's failure to release timely information about SARS, which first appeared in the country's south in late 2002, contributed to the disease's spread, some health experts have claimed.

SARS, which has very similar symptoms to bird flu, eventually killed 774 people worldwide.

Initial tests failed to find the SARS virus in the 2003 case, but further testing on the man's lung tissue yielded fragments of a flu virus, the scientists' said. Genetic sequencing revealed it to be a mixed virus, according to their letter, with genes similar to two distinct types of bird flu seen in northern and southern China.

The death raised the possibility that other cases attributed to SARS may have actually been H5N1 infections.

WHO has asked the ministry whether other suspect cases are being tested, Wadia said, but has not received a response.


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