Monday, May 23, 2005

Lack of bird flu action a national scandal

China is taking vigorous measures to contain H5N1 infection allegedly brought to the country via migrating wildfowl, apparently bar-headed (or spot-headed) geese, possibly from India (see coverage by Recombinomics here, here and here). 178 dead geese were found on bird island in Qinghai Lake in remote Western China. The lake is China's largest saltwater lake and the quarter-square kilometer island, said to be home to more than 100,000 birds, is a tourist attraction, especially for birders. It has now been closed and farms near migration routes have been ordered to vaccinate their birds.

Agence France Presse (AFP) also reports a much wider provincial vaccination campaign underway:
China has ordered the immediate vaccination of three million birds among other emergency measures to stop the spread of bird flu after discovering the H5N1 virus had killed some migratory birds, state media said yesterday.


Poultry in farms around the affected area had been mostly vaccinated by Saturday, Xinhua said.

The dead birds were found on the edges of Lake Qinghai, where the presence of migratory birds is a tourist attraction.

The area has been sealed off for more than 10 days, with police stationed there around the clock to prevent tourists from entering, the Beijing News said.


Veterinary institutions across China were also asked to determine the species and territory of migratory birds in their regions and to take precautionary measures.

The agriculture ministry has asked local governments to prohibit people from entering the habitats of migratory birds and to prevent contact between migratory birds and poultry, Xinhua said.
Confusion remains about the source of the migrating birds, with news reports quoting Chinese authorities as suspecting southeast asia but adding that the virus is not the same as the one currently circulating there. China last reported H5N1 infection in birds last July. The H5N1 virus is not always highly pathogenic for geese, although it apparently is in this case. A previous outbreak in China in 1996 also was deadly for geese.

The Chinese authorities are clearly taking this outbreak seriously, but it is hard to see how they will be able to prevent the spread if migrating birds are indeed the source, as there are major migratory flyways across this vast country. Once H5N1 infection in birds becomes an Asian panzootic we will be in yet another segment of an extremely worrisome trajectory for global public health.

Meanwhile, deaths from bird flu continue to be reported from Vietnam, the latest a 46 year old man from an area 40 km west of Hanoi. Two other cases are hospitalized.

All national health authorities are now on notice that pandemic planning should be highest priority. If this were intelligence regarding a possible terrorist action we would be on Red Alert. Yet there is still no visible action from the US CDC or most state health authorities. This must now be counted a national scandal.