China plans early warning system for avian flu

Jun 3, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – A Chinese official announced this week that China plans to launch an early warning system for outbreaks of avian influenza, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.

The system will include a nationwide virus database, epidemic analysis and information sharing among foreign experts, and regular announcements to the public, the Jun 1 report said. The information was attributed to Ma Juncai, assistant director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Microbiology.

China has been a focus of concern about H5N1 avian flu recently because of the revelation in late May that hundreds of migratory birds had died of the disease at a nature preserve in Qinghai province in the northwest. Chinese officials have denied rumors of human cases associated with the outbreak.

Describing the early warning system at a conference in Shanghai, Ma said, "The system would warn people of an epidemic and help scientists find solutions to kill the virus as soon as possible."

Ma and his colleagues are developing the system in eight provinces. "The high-tech system is under construction, but it's hard to say when it will be put to use," he was quoted as saying.

Little new information about the Chinese outbreak in wild birds emerged this week. The outbreak has stirred concern because it is the first known H5N1 outbreak in China since July 2004 and because at least five species of wild birds, including bar-headed geese and two species of gulls, were reported to have died of the disease. Wild waterfowl are recognized as the natural reservoir for all influenza A viruses and commonly carry them without getting sick, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A news report this week in the British magazine Nature said that until now, only a handful of migratory birds were known to have died of H5N1 infection. The Chinese outbreak implies that the virus has become highly infectious and lethal among migratory birds, prompting fears that the virus might have mutated in a dangerous way, the report said.

The WHO has sought to obtain virus samples from the dead birds for analysis. "They have not provided any samples yet, though we would love to get our hands on them," WHO spokesman Dick Thompson told CIDRAP News by e-mail today.

The outbreak was first reported to involve 178 birds, but this increased to 519 in a Chinese report to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), dated May 21. A week ago, a Chinese agricultural official put the number at more than 1,000 birds. Unconfirmed reports circulating on the Internet have listed higher numbers.

Thompson said today, "The size of the outbreak in birds is unclear to us." He also said Chinese officials continue to deny reports of human cases in the area.

Elsewhere, avian flu has been ruled out as the cause of a mysterious respiratory illness that killed 5,000 chickens in Brazil, according to a Jun 1 Associated Press (AP) report. The outbreak at a farm in Mato Gross do Sul state prompted the slaughter of another 17,000 chickens.

"We know it's not bird flu," Jamil Gomes, coordinator of the Agriculture Ministry's animal sanitation division, was quoted as saying. He said authorities suspected the disease might be exotic Newcastle disease, which is not dangerous to humans. An outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in California in 2002 and 2003 led to the slaughter of more than 3 million poultry.

The AP story said Brazil is the world's largest chicken exporter, its export business having burgeoned last year in part because of the widespread outbreaks of avian flu in Asia.

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