China has started a daily bird flu reporting system for poultry and human cases after four people were infected with the H5N1 virus this month, three fatally, the Health Ministry said on Thursday.
The Health Ministry, Agriculture Ministry and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce are requiring provincial departments to report every day on whether or not there have been infections in their areas.
Daily reporting has been implemented during previous outbreaks of bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and it underscores the government's worries over potential epidemics. A spokesman at the Health Ministry's press office said the system was put in place earlier this week, when the death of a 16-year-old student infected with the virus in southwest China was announced. A 27-year-old woman in eastern China and a 19-year-old woman in Beijing have also died from the disease this month. A 2-year-old girl sickened with bird flu remained hospitalized in the country's north. Her mother, who like the toddler was also exposed to live poultry, died from pneumonia earlier this month, but health officials say they cannot confirm that she had been infected with H5N1.
The Agriculture Ministry has ordered increased monitoring and management of live poultry markets, especially before next week's Lunar New Year holiday, when people come into more contact with chickens and ducks when preparing celebratory meals. The Health Ministry said Wednesday that there was no evidence of a large-scale outbreak of bird flu despite the new cases. It said the illnesses were isolated, unrelated and did not show significant mutations of the H5N1 virus.
They also occurred during the cold months, which experts have determined are high season for infections, it said. According to the World Health Organization, bird flu has killed 249 people worldwide since 2003.
No sick poultry has been found in the areas where the four Chinese fell ill this year, despite officials inspecting hundreds of thousands of birds. This could mean that surveillance needs to be tightened or that poultry may be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms or falling sick. Vaccinations also reduce the amount of virus circulating, but low levels of H5N1 may still be causing outbreaks without the obvious signs of dying birds. The WHO has said that the lack of reports of poultry outbreaks raised questions about the strength of China's monitoring system. While the disease remains hard for humans to catch, scientists have warned if outbreaks among poultry are not controlled, the virus may mutate into a form more easily passed between people, possibly triggering a pandemic that could kill millions worldwide.