About turn by China over suspected bird flu death

In a complete about turn Chinese authorities have now called in the World Health Organisation (WHO) to examine three suspected human cases of bird flu, including one of a girl who died.

Initially the authorities were quick to deny that the girl had contracted bird flu, but following newspaper reports in Hong Kong alleging that the girl from Hunan province in central China had died from an unknown fever after eating a chicken believed to be infected with the H5N1 virus, Chinese authorities now admit that the disease "had not been ruled out" as the cause of her death, or the similar illness that affected her brother and a village teacher.

According to the ministry of health, as the cause of the illness was difficult to confirm, they have invited WHO experts to come to China to jointly carry out further investigation into the cause of illness.

Since the initial outbreak of bird flu in 2003, the virus has killed 62 people in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia.

At that time China declared it had eradicated the disease.

As chickens are kept in similar conditions in China as in all south-east Asian countries, there has been widespread concern about the validity of the Chinese claims.

Six people died in an earlier outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997.

While China has not to date officially recorded a single human case, it has led to repeated rumours on anti-government websites based abroad of government cover-ups of deaths.

Although the World Health Organisation has praised China for being more open about bird flu than it was about the SARS epidemic two years ago, in which hundreds of people died before the government admitted the scale of the problem, the organisation has apparently still reported long delays before being allowed to visit the sites of outbreaks and in receiving samples from infected birds, from which it could identify transmission routes through DNA testing.

Fears of a lack of transparency and, an inability on the part of local authorities to handle the disease, seemed to be confirmed when the two Hong Kong newspapers reported the suspicious illnesses as far back as October 26.

By that time the girl had died 10 days before after eating a chicken that had fallen ill. The village's birds were later confirmed to be suffering from the disease.

But at the time local authorities said preliminary tests had proved negative for the disease, and the state news agency said she had died from pneumonia.

It is unclear why the ministry has now revised its opinion, but many have questioned whether local authorities have shown enough urgency and competence in dealing with bird flu.

WHO spokesman in Beijing Roy Wadia says they are discussing methods of testing for the disease with the Chinese authorities, and suggests that the Chinese had been trying to be "thorough" before going public.

Meanwhile, authorities ordered the slaughter of all poultry in a county of the northern province of Liaoning, on the border with North Korea, after it was struck by the country's fourth bird flu outbreak in recent weeks.

Armed guards have apparently been deployed to ensure the procedure is carried out.

According to some reports, more than a million birds have been killed.

The North Korean authorities issued a statement saying it was on its guard, and that its leader Kim Jong-il was taking a personal interest.

Hong Kong has banned the feeding of pigeons and other wild birds in response to the bird flu outbreak, in a move apparently intended to reduce the chances of birds gathering in housing estates and spreading the disease through droppings.

Under hygiene laws enacted after the 2003 SARS outbreak, the maximum fine for feeding the birds will be about £100.

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