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Bird flu infects humans in China

Nov. 17, 2005

by JOE MCDONALD, The Associated Press

BEIJING -- China reported its first human cases of bird flu on the mainland Wednesday, including at least one fatality, as health workers armed with vaccine and disinfectant raced to inoculate billions of chickens and other poultry in a massive campaign to contain the virus.

Associated Press
Workers disinfect cars Wednesday at a checkpoint near a chicken processing plant in China's northeast Liaoning province. China reported its first three confirmed human cases of bird flu Wednesday.

The World Health Organization confirmed the virulent strain experts fear could cause a worldwide flu pandemic has now infected humans in the world's most populous nation.

China's Health Ministry reported confirmed cases of infection with the deadly H5N1 strain in a poultry worker, who died, and a 9-year-old boy, who fell ill in central Hunan province but recovered, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said the boy's 12-year-old sister, who died, was recorded as a suspected case.

Experts worry the virus could spread and mutate in China due to its huge poultry flocks and their contact with humans. It also has migration routes for geese and other wild birds that might carry the disease.

"This is a psychologically telling moment for a country that has never had bird flu cases in the past in humans," said Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing. "This will drive home to citizens across the country that this can happen in our own back yards," he said. "It's a very real threat."

Officials had warned a human infection in China was inevitable after the country suffered 11 outbreaks in poultry over the past month, which prompted authorities to destroy millions of birds.

Elsewhere in Asia, the H5N1 strain has infected at least 126 people and killed at least 64 of them since 2003, two-thirds of them in Vietnam. Nevertheless, WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng in Geneva said the Chinese cases do not increase the risk of a flu pandemic because there has been no observed genetic change in the virus and no apparent spread between people.

She said it would not be surprising if more human bird flu cases are confirmed in China. "There are a lot of chickens infected, and there's a lot of contact between humans and chickens in China," she said.

The Chinese government announced plans Tuesday to vaccinate all the country's 14 billion domestic fowl. It wasn't clear how long that would take. Chinese health officials said vaccinating chickens can require repeated injections and booster shots.

State television showed workers at industrial-scale poultry farms jabbing chickens with injector guns. Health experts in Geneva said shots were the most reliable way to vaccinate.