WHO has a go at China over new birdflu strain

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the new strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus currently circulating in China has shown no significant signs of mutation which would enable it to spread easily among people.

But the WHO has again sharply criticised China's agriculture officials lack of transparency in sharing information and has called upon them in future to share samples in a timely fashion so potential vaccines can be prepared.

According to researchers in Hong Kong and the U.S. the "Fujian-like strain", was first detected in China's southern Fujian province in March 2005, but has increasingly been found in six provinces, displacing other H5N1 strains.

While vaccines now used in poultry in China can neutralise most H5N1 strains, the new strain is resistant, which has resulted in the Fujian variant becoming predominant and responsible for a third wave of outbreaks in parts of Southeast Asia which could spread further.

Julie Hall, the WHO's bird flu coordinator in Beijing says at this stage the new strain does not appear to be more transmissible to humans or a greater pandemic risk.

China's Ministry of Health has analysed six human H5N1 samples and identified them as the "Fujian-like virus" and has shared the sequence data with the WHO.

One of the samples has been selected as a seed virus for the making of a prototype vaccine.

Although China's health ministry has been forthcoming sharing the new information, this has not happened since 2004; meanwhile the country continues to battle with outbreaks of H5N1 in birds.

It was three years ago that the international health community castigated China for covering up the extent of SARS outbreaks in the country.

Since the latter part of 2003 there have been 21 human H5N1 infections in China including 14 deaths.

The worry has been that most appear to have occurred where there was no reported outbreaks of the disease in birds, raising the possibility that H5N1 outbreaks in animals were going unnoticed or unreported.

The WHO says it is disappointing that the world had to wait for human cases to occur before the data was officially shared and China's attitude is making it difficult for experts to determine if the dangerous H5N1 virus is mutating and spreading.

Had the WHO been given the the information on the new strain experts could have produced diagnostic test kits and prepared potential vaccines.

Beijing has denied the scientific evidence of the variant and says there was no need to share samples with the WHO but the international scientific community is becoming increasingly concerned as the absence of animal outbreaks in places with human infections makes little sense and says the information from China is confusing and conflicting.

Gavin Smith a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, says because the virus is widespread, it will be involved in any human cases that do occur, and the sources of the infection are likely to have been from infected poultry.

Although the H5N1 virus remains essentially a disease of birds, it has killed more than 150 people since late 2003 and experts fear it may trigger a pandemic if it becomes easily transmitted between people.

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