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Claims of human bird flu cases in China denied

NewScientist | May 26, 2005

Chinese officials have denied media reports that H5N1 bird flu has killed more than a 100 people in the west of the country.

A web-based Chinese-language news service called Boxun (Abundant News), which allows correspondents to freely post information on its site, reported on 25 May that 121 people in 18 villages in the sparsely-settled western province of Qinghai have died of bird flu, and more are ill. Some 1300 people, have been isolated, it reports.

But on Thursday the official Xinhua news agency denied any human infections with H5N1 bird flu in the region. No unexplained pneumonia or flu among people who had contact with birds that carried H5N1 has been reported, it says. An expert team was dispatched to Qinghai soon after the strain was confirmed in wild geese at a nature reserve – a development reported earlier this week.

Xinhua says local authorities have “stepped up infectious disease control” by “closely monitoring and screening all pneumonia and flu-like cases among humans, fowl and livestock”.

“Forbidden talk”

The media reports are said to have come from nine correspondents in Qinhai, who report that people connected to the cases have been forbidden to talk to outsiders. Boxun cautions that the reports cannot be independently verified, but says it hopes by drawing attention to them they can be further investigated.

The reports say that sick people in the border region between Qinghai and the neighbouring, impoverished province of Gansu had visited the nature reserve where the birds were found. But they also report that there have been large scale outbreaks of unexplained deaths among livestock in the area.

China has never reported any human cases of H5N1. These have so far been reported only in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Scientists believe this may be due to a small genetic variation in the virus that has circulated there among domestic poultry.

China did report 50 outbreaks of H5N1 in domestic poultry right across China in 2004, from Guangdong in the southeast to Tibet in the far west. The sparseness of the reported outbreaks over such a wide region has led some scientists to fear that the virus is present in many more places.

Outbreaks may either not have been reported, or the virus may has circulated undetected due to the widespread vaccination of poultry against H5N1. In the past, the Chinese authorities denied that there were cases of SARS in Beijing when it later transpired there had been.

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