China reports its first human victims of deadly bird flu

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China has confirmed its first human cases of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu as it raced to vaccinate billions of poultry in an effort to contain the virus.

The health ministry reported two confirmed cases: a 24-year-old woman, a poultry worker, inAnhui province who died on 1 November and a nine-year-old boy from Hunan who fell ill but recovered, the official Xinhua news agency said yesterday. It said the boy's sister, 12, who died last month, was a suspected case.

China had said the girl, her brother and a teacher who fell ill at the same time were negative for H5N1. But it later asked the World Health Organisation to help re-examine the case.

Chinese investigators believe the girl died of bird flu but her body was cremated and couldn't be tested, said Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing. There was no word on the status of the teacher. "This is a psychologically telling moment for a country that has never had bird flu cases in the past in humans," said Mr Wadia. "This will drive home to citizens across the country that this can happen in our own backyards. It's a very real threat."

Experts are especially worried about the potential for bird flu to spread and mutate in China because of its vast poultry flocks and their close contact with people. The country is a major migration route for wild birds that experts say might be spreading the virus.

Officials had warned that a human infection in China was inevitable after 11 outbreaks in poultry were reported around the country over the past month, which prompted authorities to destroy millions of birds.

The government's quick response and the massive scale of its anti-disease effort have been in striking contrast to its handling of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, when it was criticised for its secrecy and failure to respond to foreign pleas for information and co-operation. Since the Sars outbreak, China has created disease-testing laboratories and a health-warning network. It has promised to be more open about epidemics and to co-operate with other countries. It reported the outbreak on 20 October in Anhui province. But Mr Wadia said the poultry worker who died there didn't live near by. He said birds died in her village in what might have been an unreported case of the disease.

"She apparently had close contact with sick birds," he said. "She died in a hospital. She was therefore tested adequately."

On Tuesday, the government said it would vaccinate all of China's 14 billion farm birds. China's cabinet discussed putting into law regulations on bird flu prevention, epidemic monitoring and emergency contingency plans, state television said. The cabinet also said it would try to offer tax breaks and subsidies.

Around Asia, the H5N1 strain has killed at least 64 people, two-thirds of them in Vietnam. The virus remains hard for people to catch and is still essentially a disease in birds.