China vaccinates 3 million farmyard birds in avian flu fear

In what may appear to many to be a somewhat delayed overreaction to an outbreak of bird flu in migrating geese, the Chinese government have sent some three million doses of vaccine to the vast north-west region.

The 178 geese that died on Lake Qinghai last week on a breeding ground on the Tibetan plateau, have been confirmed as having died from the bird flu virus, H5N1.

As no other cases have been reported in China this year, and the distance of the lake from any land border, particularly with Vietnam, the worst affected country, this has led scientists to surmise that the bar-headed geese contracted the disease elsewhere. The geese fly over the Himalayas from India in the spring to breed on the plateau.

Health officials have closed all China's nature reserves, including Bird Island, a tourist attraction on Lake Qinghai, and say they will attempt to vaccinate all three million farmyard poultry in Qinghai province within two days.

Despite their dubious handling of SARS, the pneumonia outbreak which killed hundreds of Chinese after being covered up by the government two years ago, and continued allegations of concealing bird flu cases, the response of officials is still to play down viral outbreaks, with one specialist saying that people need not panic and that the new cases will be brought under control as effective measures have been taken.

"Inexperience" was the excuse given for the earlier denial on the part of officials in Qinghai that the geese fatalities were caused by bird flu.

And in a second admission, the government reported two outbreaks of foot and mouth disease which foreign agricultural experts say is rife throughout China, but rarely publicised.

More than 50 people in south-east Asia, mostly in Vietnam, have died after contracting bird flu. The World Health Organization (WHO) fears that should a new strain spread more easily among humans it could cause a worldwide epidemic, killing millions.

China claims not to have suffered any human infections.

Vietnamese health officials said yesterday that preliminary tests had shown another person had died of the virus at a hospital in Hanoi last week.

Malik Peiris, a microbiologist at Hong Kong University, said there was a "significant possibility" that domestic poultry in China, the world's number two producer after America, could be at risk.

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