Is China Covering up a New Bird Flu Epidemic? (Updated)

While the WHO has recently said they do not believe China is experiencing a epidemic, an article in Business Week argues that the government may not be entirely forthcoming about the current situation:

There have already been eight reported cases of humans contracting the potential deadly H5N1 virus, from which five people have died this year. And despite the fact that Hong Kong officials have been finding dead birds infected with the virus washing up onto its shores in recent days from the mainland, China has not made any official statement concerning an outbreak among birds. At least one Hong Kong health advisor to the government, Lo Wing-lok, says the government “just isn’t admitting” to the problem.

If this is true, both Chinese health officials and the state media must share the blame. Surely after so many human infections people must be asking questions of how the caught the virus, as human to human transmission is highly unlikely. But China has a horrible track record of squelching bad news at the cost of public safety, usually with the complicity of the local media. Back in 2003 Guangdong provincials covered up the SARS epidemic for 22 weeks before informing neighboring Hong Kong. By that time it was too late, and nearly 300 people died of SARS in Hong Kong, as did hundreds more worldwide. You would have thought that China had learned its lesson back then.

Meanwhile, Xinhua reports that a three-year-old girl infected with the virus has recovered and been released from the hospital.

Update: In addition, the current drought in northern China may increase the susceptibility of birds to the H5N1 strain. William Bi and John Liu from Bloomberg report:

The lack of rainfall in Shandong, Shaanxi and other northern provinces since October causes stress for local fowl, said Hong Kong Veterinary Association President Veronica Leong, who specializes in birds. “Any sort of stress would make birds more susceptible to disease,” she said by e-mail today.

Bird flu killed five people in China last month, three of whom were from regions experiencing drought. Lo Wing-Lok, a health adviser to the Hong Kong government, said yesterday China has an outbreak of bird flu among poultry that its government hasn’t reported.

“As drinking water becomes more scarce for wild birds, they may come into closer contact with domestic fowl, increasing chances of cross-infection,” said Nie Ben, agricultural commodities manager at Shanghai Continent Futures Co. in Dalian.



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