Bird flu reaches China as death toll rises to eight

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The Independent Online

Bird flu sweeping across Asia has reached China, authorities said yesterday, after dead ducks tested positive to the virus.

Bird flu sweeping across Asia has reached China, authorities said yesterday, after dead ducks tested positive to the virus.

A second boy died in Thailand yesterday, pushing the official number of human fatalities from bird flu in Vietnam and Thailand to eight. Five other suspicious deaths may be linked to avian influenza, but the test results in Bangkok are incomplete. Officials were due to gather in Bangkok today for an emergency health summit.

The infected Chinese duck farm is located in Dingdang, 60 miles from the Vietnamese border in Guangxi province. More than 14,000 birds within a three-kilometre (two-mile) radius were culled, and every fowl for five kilometres around it was quarantined.

Similar measures were under way yesterday in Laos, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. Taiwan and Pakistan are battling a milder virus, but are slaughtering chickens pre-emptively. Indonesia is holding off on a cull, but is being urged to start slaughtering.

Only Vietnam and Thailand have reported human infection caused by the virus, but experts warn that immediate preventative action is critical. More than 20 million fowl have been slaughtered across Asia in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading to humans. A vaccine will take at least six months to perfect, experts said.

At least 55 people are believed to be showing symptoms of the sudden respiratory flu. Shigeru Omi, the regional director for the World Health Organisation (WHO), said during a visit to Hanoi: "We expect that there might be many more cases."

All the human victims fell ill after handling sick chickens, but international agencies say that this strain of the H5N1 virus could combine with human influenza or airborne swine flu, which would swiftly kill anyone without immunity. Even in its present variant, the bird flu virus is lethal, killing one-third of the people who contract it; in domestic poultry, the death rate is nearly 100 per cent.

Normally hardy migratory birds - such as geese, storks and cranes - have been found dead near ponds, and their blood samples are under investigation. The WHO suspects that water fowl may be spreading the disease. Infected waterfowl droppings are an especially potent source of the virus, and desiccated faecal dust is easily inhaled. Small chicken farms throughout south-east Asia may be required to use protective nets, as is done in Singapore, in order to screen out virus-ridden wild birds.

Mr Omi said that this version of H5N1 was more dangerous than the virus which killed six of eighteen people who were infected during a 1997 epidemic in Hong Kong. He said: "I think that we have to prepare for the worst case scenario."

Although experts insist that the chance of getting flu through food is minuscule, Asian consumers are reluctant to buy prepared chicken, ducks or turkey. The KFC chain in Hanoi is planning a switch to fried fish. Reports that some farmers sold the flesh of infected birds have put people off.

Representatives from Thailand, Indonesia and China are expected to face criticism at today's health crisis conference in Bangkok for apparent delays in confirming bird flu outbreaks.