World Health Organisation: China engaging in bird flu cover up

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Map of China. Source: CIA World Factbook

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The World Health Organization's Beijing spokesman has said that the People's Republic of China has withheld vital information regarding H5N1 outbreaks, a type of bird flu that is infecting animals throughout Asia. The animals most affected by the disease are those among waterfowl and poultry, however in recents months it has infected humans and has also been discovered in tigers as well as swine. The Nation magazine quotes WHO officials as saying that the strain has the potential of causing a human pandemic (global epidemic) resulting in tens of millions of deaths.

The first appearance of this type of flu was in Hong Kong during 1997. As of July 21, 2005, one hundred and nine cases of human infection have been confirmed resulting in fifty five deaths outside of China reports the Centers for Disease Control. China has reported no deaths in the recent outbreaks, leading to speculation of a cover up. The Economist says eleven countries across Asia have been affected, and more than one hundred and twenty million birds have died from infection or been culled. Although this week a case was found in Russia making it the first European country with an infection and twelfth in the world.

World Health Organization logo. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Usually these flu viruses are carried worldwide by wild bird populations in their intestines and are non-lethal. However this variant has mutated into the most lethal strain of influenza ever recorded says Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. Such occurrences are natural and have happened in the past as in the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic.

The current virus is morphing into a type that is spread among humans with the first human-to-human cases found in Vietnam during 2005. When avian influenza subtypes adapt for this mode of transmission the effect is deadly for humans as the immune system has no natural immunities for it and the production of appropriate antibodies to fight the infection takes some time.

Further complicating the effort to combat H5N1, it was reported in the Washington Post that the People's Republic of China has been administering the medication Amantadine to poultry in violation of international livestock regulations that state it is for human use only since the late-1990s (all the time officially denying any cases of bird flu among its poultry); the result has been that the virus is now largely immune to the medication and is significantly deadlier. World Health Organization officials had been preparing to use the drug to fight a future pandemic and now it has been rendered useless.

Chinese government officials have said more than 1,000 migratory birds have been found dead during 2005 and there have been unofficial Internet reports of one hundred and twenty related human fatalities that are strongly denied by Beijing.

China has previously irked international agencies for its handling of public and agricultural health crises, notably the SARS epidemic that began in 2002. China's health minister was fired after the government acknowledged it had covered up the extent of the SARS outbreak by preventing reports about the illness for months and by minimizing its seriousness says the Washgington Post.

Margaret Chan, WHO director of pandemic influenza preparedness is pressing China to allow laboratories to examine specimens from birds in Qinghai, where the H5N1 virus has killed more than 5,000 birds from five species. Recombinomics has found Chinese message boards indicating part of Qinghai province may be under martial law and quarantine.

Three outbreaks of H5N1 have affected China in recent months but the World Health Organization has not received the information or the virus samples from infected birds that they requested. "It is a matter of urgency," said Roy Wadia, the WHO's speaker in China. "We stress that this virus is highly unpredictable and versatile and can change any time. It is highly dangerous."