Chinese New Year could mean more bird flu outbreaks

China has warned that bird flu could be more prevalent over the Lunar New Year holidays as the transport of live poultry increases.

Chinese authorities have reported some 30 outbreaks of the deadly strain of bird flu this year.

According to Jia Youling, director-general of the Agriculture Ministry's veterinary bureau, no new cases of the H5N1 virus have been reported for 15 days after a rash of outbreaks in the past two months; but he cautions against complacency.

Jia says sporadic outbreaks in winter this year or spring next year are still a possibility and great challenges remain in controlling the spread of the virus.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could mutate into a form that can pass easily between people, leading to a human pandemic.

China has been struggling to curb outbreaks with mass vaccinations of its 14 billion poultry and with an education campaign to encourage farmers and local officials to report new cases.

Jia predicts that the New Year will see fresh outbreaks of the virus.

The Chinese New Year comes at the end of January.

Jia says the vaccination efforts, by frequent inspections and by curbing the slaughter of live chickens in markets, they have tried to guard against that happening.

Following wide criticism for its cover-up of the SARS virus in 2003, the Chinese government has pledged openness in fighting bird flu.

However Health Minister Gao Qiang has said rural doctors might be ill-equipped or ill-trained to detect cases.

Jia has reiterated the government's stance that it has not covered up any bird flu outbreaks, and said in fact it was facing the opposite problem with farmers falsely reporting the virus in hopes of receiving compensation.

Jia says every farmer and local official knows, they cannot hide outbreaks for long because it will eventually spread to other regions and there will be an even bigger impact on the local economy.

Five human infections from bird flu have also been confirmed in China but a mystery over the source of infection in two of those cases still exists as they occurred in places where no poultry outbreaks have been reported.

The World Health Organisation has said that could mean the disease in birds was going undetected, but according to Jia samples of birds taken in both the cases, in the eastern province of Anhui and the southern province of Guangxi, tested negative for the virus.

Jia suggests those people may have contracted the disease through droppings of wild birds or through water contaminated by infected wild birds.

According to China's official news agency the State Forestry Administration has established an arm to monitor bird flu among migratory and wild birds.

Zhao Liangping, head of the monitoring station, says that most bird flu-hit areas have wetlands nearby and the epidemic often breaks out sometime after the arrivals of migratory birds.

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