Thursday, May 26, 2005

China's "isolated" bird flu outbreak

The statement by China's Ministry of Agriculture that the Qinghai bird flu in migrating geese "has so far proven to be an isolated case" can't even be taken at face value.

You've got over 500 dead bird of five different species on a flyway that extends from New Zealand to Siberia, and every one of the infected migratory birds just decides to plop down on the same quarter square kilometer island to die?

We note that China also practices vaccination, which allows birds to be infected but not sicken. Vaccinated birds shed significantly less virus but may still be infectious. So the notion that the problem was isolated and is over with is not very credible. I'm trying to say it nicely.

Meanwhile there are cryptic and unconfirmed reports suggesting there might be human deaths from an unknown cause in Qinghai. Chinese authorities in the provincial capital of Xining (via XinhuaNet) are denying any human infection or unexplained deaths from pneumonia:
XINING, May 26 (Xinhuanet) -- No human infection of avian flu or unexplained pneumonia case has been detected in northwest China's Qinghai Province and health departments are going all out to prevent a possible outbreak of bird flu, according to a local health official.

Emergency measures have been taken by the provincial health authorities after Ministry of Agriculture investigators confirmed on Saturday that migratory birds found dead in Quanji Township of Gangca County had been killed by the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, said Ai Keyuan, an official with the provincial health bureau.

Health departments in the provincial capital Xining and at least four prefectures have been mobilized. They have stepped up infectious disease control and prevention by closely monitoring and screening all pneumonia and flu-like cases among human beings,fowls and livestock, Ai told Xinhua in an interview Wednesday.

Ai said hospitals in Gangca County, where the avian flu cases were reported, have opened up a separate outpatient department forfeverish patients alone. "The county's health department, meanwhile, is assisting the provincial disease control and prevention center in medical observations of people who had had close contacts with the birds," he added.

Ai said his department is also helping local animal husbandry departments to sterilize the infected areas and properly dispose of birds' droppings.

"All hospitals have been told to set up a task force and put aside medication and facilities for the treatment of any avian flucases that might be detected," he said.

Qinghai Province took emergency measures by closing off some scenic spots to prevent people and poultry from contacting wild birds. Quarantine measures have also been adopted.

The Ministry of Agriculture has told the public not to get too nervous but said monitoring for the epidemic and the early-warningsystem should be enhanced.
I don't find this report especially reassuring. It says there are dead birds in Qinghai and that no one should panic because they have stopped the spread in birds. At the same time it says hospitals have set up special fever clinics and that "[q]uarantine measures have been adopted." It doesn't say if these measures relate to people or birds. It denies unexplained deaths "from pneumonia." It is impossible to know from this if it covers all unexplained deaths from all causes as well.

It is too soon to jump to conclusions about what is happening here. The suggestion there has been a news blackout is worrisome. China is especially sensitive about such charges because of the SARS episode so I think this is unlikely, but we just don't know at the moment. We will keep our eye on this.