China on alert as H7N9 bird flu infects 18

A passenger has a temperature check for signs of flu at Sungshan Airport in Taipei. Picture: Getty
A passenger has a temperature check for signs of flu at Sungshan Airport in Taipei. Picture: Getty
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TWO more people have contracted a new strain of bird flu in Shanghai, increasing the number of cases in eastern China to 18. Six of the people who contracted the virus have died.

Health officials believe people are being infected with the H7N9 virus through direct contact with diseased birds and say there is no evidence as yet of person-to-person transmission.

Shanghai’s authorities said yesterday the latest victims were a 74-year-old rural dweller and a 66-year-old pensioner.

The city has been ordered by the agriculture ministry to halt its live poultry trade and slaughter all fowl in markets where the H7N9 virus has been detected.

The capital cities of the neighbouring provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu have also suspended sales of live poultry. Both provinces have reported cases of H7N9 in ­people.

More than 20,000 birds have been culled at another Shanghai market where traces of the virus were found last week.

Officials in Shanghai, China’s financial hub, closed all the city’s live poultry markets yesterday and emptied food stalls. All poultry trading was banned in Nanjing, another eastern Chinese city, although local officials said they had not found any trace of the bird-flu virus.

All the people known to have the new strain of bird flu were confirmed as having the disease in the past five days. All the cases reported involve people from the east of China.

The deaths of six of those infected has raised health fears across China and overseas. It has also sparked a sell-off in airline shares in Europe and Hong Kong.

Yesterday there were no signs of panic in Shanghai, where four of the six deaths were reported, and people ­generally said they were not worried. But the culling of poultry, which has been widely publicised, has underlined that the threat of infection was immediate.

“Now it’s just downstairs,” said Liu Leting, a user of ­Weibo, China’s version of Twitter which has more than 500 million users. “Suddenly I ­discover that I’m living in an epidemic zone!”

In one city restaurant, a waitress said they planned to stop serving chicken because of the outbreak. “After we sell out the chicken in stock, we will not buy new chicken and will stop serving chicken dishes for the time being,” she said.

A report in the US said that anxious residents had been hurrying to Shanghai’s hospitals at the first sign of respiratory problems.

“They say it’s OK to eat cooked chicken, but I’d rather not take the chance,” Zhang Minyu, 41, told the US media from a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken, where cooked meat was sitting unsold. While the strain does not appear to be transmitted from human to human, authorities in mainland China and Hong Kong have said they are taking extra health precautions.

Hong Kong’s government said it was intensifying surveillance of travellers and poultry coming into the city.

China’s food and drug administration said it had fast-tracked approval for intravenous anti-influenza drug Peramivir, developed by Bio-Cryst Pharmaceuticals.

Peramivir is in medical trials to test its effectiveness against type-A and type-B flu, the ­administration said in a statement. The H7N9 strain belongs to the type-A group.

Shanghai authorities have stressed the H7N9 virus remained vulnerable to the drug Tamiflu and those diagnosed early could be cured. Tamiflu is made by Roche Holding AG.

China and Hong Kong were badly hit in 2002 and 2003 by an epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that started in China and killed about one-tenth of the 8,000 people infected worldwide. The symptoms of Sars first appeared in Guangdong province in November 2002, although it was not reported to the World Health Organisation at that time.

A Chinese professor of respiratory medicine treating people with the syndrome fell ill. He travelled to Hong Kong, carrying the virus with him. This led to an explosion of cases in the province towards the end of February 2003. In just a few weeks, thanks to international air travel, Sars spread around the world. It wasn’t until July 2003 that the WHO was able to declare that the outbreak had been contained. By that time, at least 8,098 people had been infected, 9.6 per cent of whom had died. Between July 2003 and May 2004, four small and rapidly contained outbreaks of Sars were reported. Three of these were linked to laboratory releases of the Sars virus.

Although the Chinese ­government is reluctant to publicise health alerts – as the Sars outbreak showed – the regime has been praised for its transparency and responsiveness in the way the current situation has been handled.

“It was the ministry of health and family planning that first came to us and volunteered the information,” Gregory Hartl, spokesman for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, told western journalists. “Their response has been excellent.”