China vows harsh punishment amid bird flu scare

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has promised harsh punishment for illegal poultry sales after four recent bird flu cases, as a health official said the mother of a toddler infected with the avian virus had died of pneumonia weeks before.

Chinese health authorities on Monday said a 16-year-old boy from southern Hunan province was badly ill after contracting the H5N1 virus, the third case in as many days, and as millions of Chinese flock to poultry markets to buy food ahead of the lunar New Year holiday.

After not recording a case in almost a year, four human infections have been reported in the last two weeks. Two have died, and two remain in hospital.

The H5N1 flu remains largely a virus among birds, but experts fear it could change into a form that is easily transmitted among humans and spark a pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide.

The mother of a two-year-old girl from southern Hunan, who was confirmed infected on Saturday and remains in critical condition, had died of pneumonia at the same time as her daughter developed a fever, the China Business News said in a report carried on major websites.

“Her mother had come into contact with live poultry on December 21-25. She developed a light fever on December 28-29, and then died of severe pneumonia on January 6 or January 7,” the paper said, quoting an official within Hunan’s Health Bureau.

The official said it was not possible to determine whether the mother had died after contracting bird flu, as there were no samples left behind after her death.

But both she and her daughter had come into contact with poultry through a relative’s business at a local market outside of Changsha, the provincial capital, the paper said.

Peng Zaizhi, director of the emergency office within the Hunan Health Bureau, confirmed the report in a phone call to Reuters, but would not provide further details.

COLD WEATHER

Experts have said the new bird flu cases are not unexpected as the virus is more active during cooler months between October and March, but have also pointed to holes in surveillance.

The cases have prompted authorities to launch emergency checks on local poultry markets in several provinces of China where the cases have been recorded.

China’s State Administration of Industry and Commerce instructed officials to “severely punish” illegal sellers of live poultry and bird flu vaccines, the Farmers’ Daily, a state-run newspaper, said in a report posted on its website (www.farmer.com.cn).

“Severely crack down on the illegal sale of avian vaccines, unvaccinated poultry and poultry products that have died from illness,” the paper quoted the industry regulator as saying.

In northern Shanxi province, where the two-year-old girl remains in hospital, authorities have ordered officials to man provincial border control stations around the clock to “prevent the infiltration of disease,” the official Shanxi Daily said.

With the world’s biggest poultry population and hundreds of millions of backyard birds, China is seen as critical in the fight to contain bird flu.  Continued…

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