New strains

China on alert as bird flu toll rises


Avian flu is in the headlines again

The last time that chicken feet were headline news was 2010, when China slapped duties on US imports in a retaliatory strike against President Obama’s tariffs on Chinese tyres. But last month they were back on the agenda, after a weibo post claimed that the latest bird flu scare began when a man in Liaoning province tucked into chicken feet carrying the virus.

Thankfully, it was just a hoax – Liaoning has not reported any H7N9 cases among humans so far – and the police have arrested the man who made the claim. Nevertheless, the interest in the case only serves to highlight the continued fear of an outbreak of avian flu.

It hasn’t helped that two new cases of H7N9 avian flu were reported in Guangdong this week. (Nor that another man from the province died after being infected with the virus). Officials in Zhejiang have also confirmed three new cases of H7N9 in a Hangzhou-based “family cluster” (a term used in public health circles to define infections among multiple family members). This sparked renewed concern that the disease is being transmitted between humans (previously it was believed that infection spread only from sick birds to humans in close contact).

Another worrying development came to light in midweek when international media reported that an entirely new strain of bird flu had killed a 73 year-old woman in Nanchang City. This one is named H10N8, and it is thought the victim caught the diseases after visiting a poultry market. Another case of the new H10N8 virus has also been detected in Jiangxi province.

Scientists told medical journal The Lancet that the potential for the new strain to trigger a pandemic “should not be underestimated”. However, experts say there is no evidence yet that it can spread from person to person.

News of more bird flu cases comes as China celebrates the Lunar New Year, one of the world’s largest exercises in human migration. Workers are expected to make more than 3 billion journeys to visit friends and families, increasing the chances of the spread of any virus.

Some cities are already taking preventative measures. Last week Hong Kong banned live chicken sales for 21 days and culled about 20,000 birds after a sample imported from China tested positive for H7N9. Shanghai also began a three-month ban on live poultry sales. The H7N9 virus has already brought losses of more than Rmb20 billion ($3.29 billion) to the country’s poultry industry, according to the China Animal Husbandry Association.

Medical experts say that H7N9 is difficult to track, compared to the better known H5N1 bird flu virus, which kills poultry rapidly and in large volumes. Also worrying is whether we are making a pandemic more likely, especially in China where so many flu outbreaks seem to originate. The Economist reported last week that the average Chinese person consumes 10 times more antibiotics than in the US, for instance. This is producing antibiotic-resistant genes, which could make medical treatment much less effective, heightening the potential risks of an avian flu outbreak.

One reason for over-prescription, as WiC has reported in the past, is that public hospitals are underfunded and doctors underpaid. For many, additional income depends on how many drugs can be prescribed, incentivising sales of antibiotics when patients don’t really need them.

Meanwhile, worries over H7N9 are hitting chicken suppliers outside China too. This week the Financial Times reported that Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the US by sales, will slow the pace of its China expansion because local demand for chicken is showing signs of stress.

Donnie Smith, Tyson’s chief executive, says that demand for chicken is down as much as 30% in China due to a softening economy, and food safety concerns, resulting in “substantial oversupply”. Smith added that concerns about a resurgence of avian flu would further dent demand.

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