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Health Officials Try to Calm China Flu Fears

BEIJING—International health officials today sought to reassure antsy staff of foreign embassies here that the recent spate of fatalities in China from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza is no cause for alarm. But they also noted that H5N1 remains as deadly and unpredictable as ever. “H5N1 behaves a little differently” than other flu strains, said Vincent Martin, senior technical adviser for avian influenza in the Beijing office of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “That’s why we have such a crisis.” 

Since 2003, H5N1 has infected 407 people in 15 countries, killing 254. Last month, Chinese authorities reported five deaths from eight infected people across the country. “According to our risk assessment, nothing has really changed,” said Hans Troedsson, World Health Organization representative in Beijing, who along with Martin and FAO veterinary epidemiologist Edith Marshall spoke at a panel organized by the Foreign Correspondents   Club of China after briefing embassy personnel at the U.N. compound.

“It’s following a seasonal pattern,” Troedsson noted, as most cases occur from January to March. There’s no evidence, he said, of person-to-person transmission in the recent cases.

That’s no reason to let our guard down against a potential pandemic, Troedsson said. One worrisome fact is that the virus is entrenched in the region. “It can survive for months in water,” said Martin, who praised China’s agriculture ministry for its dogged efforts to sniff out where in the environment H5N1 is circulating and pinpoint afflicted populations of chickens and ducks, the prime source of infection for people. “They are doing a thorough investigation,” Martin said, although, he added, more must be done to strengthen China’s scientific capacity.

Most urgent may be an overhaul of China’s poultry industry. At least 60% of China’s estimated 14 billion poultry is raised in backyard farms in the countryside, making animal surveillance difficult. The bottom line, said Troedsson, is that “the only way to eliminate the virus is to change animal husbandry practices.”