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China races to stamp out bird flu, but not all signs are hopeful

GAOYOU LAKE, China—With avian flu percolating around this area of central China, Wang Huilan knew just what to do when her little flock of backyard fowl began to take ill.

"I ate the sick chickens," Wang said.

China's peasants know little about avian flu, and the deaths of their poultry can hurt them economically. So any sign of illness prompts them to sell their flocks rapidly and eat their fowl.

Luckily, Wang suffered no ill effects, and so far China also has been fortunate. It's reported no case of human infection from the deadly bird flu virus. But a spate of three avian flu outbreaks in barely two weeks has drawn attention to the nation's fraying public health system and revived memories of how China mismanaged a 2003 outbreak of a different epidemic, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

A visit deep into China's countryside raised new questions about whether local officials were minimizing the extent of avian flu outbreaks to avoid repercussions.

Efforts to contain bird flu are quickly turning into a major bilateral issue between China and the United States. Fears that the virus could mutate into a super flu that's transmittable between humans and kill millions of people around the globe have led to a flurry of high-level contacts between Washington and Beijing. The issue is likely to come up again during President Bush's Nov. 19-20 summit with President Hu Jintao in Beijing, following a Sept. 13 meeting in New York City when the issue arose.

U.S. officials "would like the Chinese authorities to be a lot more open, rapid and accurate" in their avian flu reporting, Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said at a press briefing in Beijing. "It's not that the central Ministry of Health is trying to obfuscate. They themselves face obfuscation from local authorities" and local disease-control experts.

China confirmed an avian flu outbreak in Inner Mongolia on Oct. 19, one in Anhui province to the east on Oct. 24 and another in Hunan province in the south Oct. 25.

"The three outbreaks were stamped out," said the nation's chief veterinarian, Jia Youling. He said no human infection had occurred and denied that a 12-year-old girl in Hunan province who ate a diseased chicken had died from the H5N1 bird flu virus.

In much of China, animals, poultry and humans live in close proximity, even in parts of the same dwelling, providing fertile ground for viruses to mutate. China has some 14.2 billion chickens, about 20 percent of the world's total.

Near Guangdong Village along Gaoyou Lake, which straddles Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, duck and geese farmers have created ponds for their fowl. Most of the ponds are empty now. Sometime in late August, following heavy rains and flooding, hundreds of domestic fowl died.

"They died in groups," said Li Lijun, a crab farmer.

"The geese struggled in the water. They were sick," added Wang, who lives aboard a shrimp boat on the lake's shore. "The geese farmers were all afraid their geese would die, so they sold them off."

China acknowledged in October an avian flu outbreak at a site about 10 miles away, in Liangying Village, Bianyi Township. It said 550 geese there died, prompting authorities to destroy 44,736 poultry in a 1.9-mile radius.

But authorities made no mention of the Guangdong Village contagion, raising questions about whether avian flu hit there but wasn't reported.

"As to the deaths of ducks and geese at Guangdong Village that you mentioned, I don't think they were caused by bird flu," said Tang Yucheng, a spokesman for the surrounding Tianchang City in Anhui province. He said he didn't know what killed the birds.

While the avian flu virus has now spread to Europe, human infection has occurred only in four southeast Asian nations. It has killed half of those infected, at least 62 people.

Global health experts say China's leaders want to avoid the errors that caused havoc in the country in 2003, when SARS emerged in the Pearl River Delta area, spread to Hong Kong and then to 30 countries. It eventually killed nearly 800 people and cost the Asia-Pacific region $40 billion in losses.

By initially covering up the epidemic, communist authorities lost credibility and fueled a panic that emptied streets in major cities and brought the country to a near halt.

With avian flu looming, China has thrown up vehicle checkpoints, closed some poultry farms, and announced it may close borders if human infection occurs. The government earmarked an additional $246 million for epidemic control, and the China Daily newspaper said Thursday that "any failure, delay or cover-up in reporting outbreaks will be dealt with harshly."

"It's a mixed bag, but not necessarily a bad bag. They are improving," said Dr. Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization representative in China.

Once Beijing gets word of a possible outbreak, he said, authorities act quickly.

"What we give them an A-plus for is, the moment they are informed, they do the right thing," Bekedam said. He said Chinese officials treat each outbreak as highly dangerous, cull birds vigorously and notify international authorities. Where China has fallen somewhat short is in community surveillance to detect disease "clusters" and in sharing viral material from the birds, which could offer foreign scientists clues as to how the virus is spreading, he said.

China offered the West some viral material in 2004, but it refused to do so following an outbreak among migratory birds in Qinghai Lake in western China in May. Instead, it put the detailed genetic sequencing of the virus on a secure Web site to share.

Bekedam said Chinese scientists "were a bit annoyed that their contributions were not always acknowledged" in the international community, so they decided to keep the live viruses for themselves.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA+AVIANFLU

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