Saturday, December 10, 2005

News - Expert says China hiding bird flu, WHO disagrees

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Hong Kong virologist told a Canadian newspaper on Friday that Chinese officials had concealed bird flu outbreaks in several provinces but the World Health Organization said it had no evidence to suggest this was the case.

Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong, one of the world's leading experts on bird flu, told the Globe and Mail that China had the virus all over the country.

"Quite honestly, some provinces have the virus and they still haven't announced any outbreak. I can show direct evidence, even though China is still trying very hard to block my research," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The WHO said it had seen nothing to suggest China was hiding cases of bird flu.

"We don't have any evidence China is concealing anything ... We don't have any information to substantiate claims Guan Yi is making, but clearly he is a respected scientist," said WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng in Geneva.

China has so far reported more than 30 outbreaks of bird flu and five cases in which the more deadly H5N1 strain of the virus spread to humans, two of whom have died.

Beijing has promised resources and openness in fighting bird flu after being widely criticized for an initial cover-up of the SARS outbreak in 2003.

The disease mostly affects birds, but scientists fear it could mutate into a form that can pass easily between people, leading to a human influenza pandemic.

The WHO said this week that bird flu might be going undetected or unreported in China, citing the case of a 10-year-old girl who fell ill in a village that had not reported any poultry outbreaks.

"We've seen a very high-level political commitment to combating avian influenza," said Cheng.

"We never expected that we would catch every single case of H5N1 in humans ... It is possible that we are missing mild cases, not just in China, but in any country reporting H5N1."

Guan said he had evidence that bird flu had been circulating in the southwestern province of Yunnan many months before officials there confirmed an outbreak on November 17.

"Why has this virus been burning for 10 years like a fire?" he asked the Globe and Mail.

"Ask the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. They should not avoid the question. It's obvious that it's out of control in China. It started off in Guangdong province and now the whole of China has the virus."

Global Coverage Article | Reuters.co.uk

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