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China has agreed to share virus samples from bird flu

Written by: Staff

BEIJING, Mar 22: China has agreed to share virus samples from bird flu outbreaks in poultry and the first batch should arrive at overseas laboratories within weeks, World Health Organisation officials said today.

The move will meet a WHO request for China to go beyond sending samples collected from people and help international efforts to fight the spread of the disease.

''I hope that we'll get the samples soon,'' Shigeru Omi, the WHO's Western Pacific regional director, told reporters. ''Our request is that they be even more regular and consistent in the months to come.

''China has done an excellent job, but we need more information,'' he said.

China has not shared samples of the virus from birds since 2004, although it has been sending genetic information.

The samples, up to 20 in all, should arrive within weeks, added Julie Hall, who is in charge of the WHO's outbreak response in China.

But the country still has a long way to go in its fight against bird flu, which has killed 103 people in Asia annd West Asia since 2003, including 10 in China, and has most recently been blamed for five deaths in Azerbaijan.

China's agriculture minister was quoted by state media this week as saying the country's widescale poultry vaccination campaign had been very effective, and denied any healthy, vaccinated birds had been infected with the H5N1 strain of the disease.

The WHO has said that studies are needed to see if China's vaccination programme might be ''masking'' the virus, though the organisation originally backed a plan to vaccinate billions of poultry.

''Vaccination played a role in reducing transmission,'' Omi said. ''But it has to be implemented carefully and surveillance for animals has become more important because immunisation may mask symptoms of infected animals.'' The risk of asymptomatic poultry came to light earlier this month when a man died in southern Guangdong province after visiting several live poultry markets and officials later said he probably caught the disease from live but H5N1-infected birds.

Another problem, highlighted by China's 15 bird flu cases in humans all occurring in areas with no reported bird outbreaks, is that die-offs of sick chickens might not immediately be linked to the disease.

In some areas, poultry cases were only found after human deaths.

''In this surveillance for animals, particularly at the grassroots level, there's some room for improvement in China,'' Omi said. ''It's too early to make any conclusion that the virus is already eliminated in China.'' And bird flu keeps spreading globally, pushing into Africa and Western Europe.

''The number of human cases is on the rise ... and the virus continues to remain very changeable,'' Omi said.

But he added there were some reasons for optimism.

''In spite of this geographical expansion and diversity in the nature of the virus, when it comes to the risk of transmission, we don't have any hard evidence to indicate that the virus has become more infectious,'' Omi said.


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