China disinfects after first bird flu death in a year

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese health authorities closed poultry markets for disinfecting in a province surrounding Beijing on Wednesday after a woman died of bird flu, the first such death in the country in almost a year.

The 19-year-old woman died of the H5N1 bird flu virus after coming into contact with poultry in Hebei province, bringing the total death toll in China to date to 21.

In parts of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing and where the dead woman had bought ducks, poultry markets were closed and the sale of live birds stopped as workers in masks sprayed disinfectant.

“We are concerned by any case of human H5N1 infection, however, this single case, which appears to have occurred during the slaughtering and preparation of poultry, does not change our risk assessment,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.

“WHO expects the ministry will continue to keep it updated on this case, and is prepared to offer technical assistance if requested,” it added, referring to the Health Ministry. The virus is generally more active during the cooler months between October and March, although the new Chinese case points to holes in surveillance of the virus in poultry.

Chinese Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qunan was quoted in state media as saying the government would step up monitoring.

“This year we must, on the basis of what we have done in the past, increase monitoring for the transmission of the highly pathogenic bird flu virus in humans,” Mao said.

The H5N1 strain remains largely a disease among birds but experts fear it could change into a form that is easily transmitted from person to person and spark a pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide.

The last human H5N1 death in China was in February last year when a 44-year-old woman died in the southern province of Guangdong.

With the world’s biggest poultry population and hundreds of millions of farmers raising birds in their backyards, China is seen as crucial in the global fight against bird flu.

Since the H5N1 virus resurfaced in Asia in 2003, it has infected 391 people, killing 247 of them, according to WHO figures released in mid-December.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Phyllis Xu; Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates)

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