March 8, 2006

Girl Dies of Bird Flu in China, UN Ups Campaign

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING -- A nine-year-old girl has died of bird flu in China, state media said on Wednesday, as the United Nations stepped up efforts to battle the rapidly spreading virus.

The girl, China's 10th known death from bird flu, died on Monday night in the eastern province of Zhejiang, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Her death comes days after the government confirmed that a 32-year-old man had died from the H5N1 virus in the southern province of Guangdong, near Hong Kong, triggering alarm there.

The virus has spread rapidly since the beginning of February, killing birds in at least 15 new countries as it spreads deeper into Europe and Africa.

Nigeria said highly pathogenic bird flu has been found in three new states, including one in the far south, indicating that the virus has spread all over Africa's most populous country despite measures to contain it.

Excluding China's latest death, bird flu has infected 175 people, killing 95 of them since 2003, and scientists fear it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates into a form that passes easily among people, triggering a pandemic. Millions could die and economies crippled for months.

To try to combat the growing threat, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization is to play a greater role in fighting bird flu, becoming a "global clearing house" for efforts to stem the spread of the virus, it said on Tuesday.

The United States and the European Union have backed the formation of what a senior U.S. official called an "emergency operations center" at the FAO's Rome headquarters. The initiative was agreed at a meeting at the FAO requested by the United States and the EU.

Funding for the center will come from a pot of almost $2 billion pledged by wealthy nations at an international conference in Beijing in January. The United States would provide experts to help run the center and expects other nations to follow suit.


In China, the latest humans deaths have raised questions over how the virus is spreading.

The 32-year-old man is the first bird flu death in an urban center in China and occurred in an area where there have been no reports of the disease in birds. He was believed to have contracted the virus at a poultry market.

The dead girl, from Anji County, had visited relatives who kept poultry, and some chickens raised there had died during at least one of her visits, Xinhua said.

"The recent cases that we've seen are cases reported in areas where no poultry outbreaks have been reported, but this does not mean that they were not exposed to infected poultry," said Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, the World Health Organization's Beijing spokeswoman.

"There is a likelihood that they were exposed to infected poultry but there were no obvious signs of large poultry die-offs to indicate that poultry in those areas had been infected," Bhatiasevi said.

With bird flu continuing its march into more countries, the appetite for poultry has nosedived in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, despite politicians' publicly eating poultry and the WHO reminding people that well-cooked chicken and eggs are safe.

In India, chicken is off the menu for many even though the government says a major bird flu outbreak in poultry two weeks ago has been stamped out.

At Sadiq Sunesra's half-century-old Mumbai restaurant, not one among the dozens walking in are tempted to buy pieces of crisp roast chicken lying invitingly in a glass case.

"Just now a customer called to order a dozen dishes of chicken biryani (chicken and rice), but changed the order on a second thought," Sunesra said. "I told her to read the newspaper, which says chicken is safe to eat. But it was useless."

In the United States, food company executives say they are ready for bird flu if it arrives there.

Their plans include offering more non-poultry products in stores, double-checking with suppliers to ensure their poultry is disease-free and advising customers that cooked poultry is safe because cooking kills the virus.

(Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng in Beijing, Robin Pomeroy in Rome, Bob Burgdorfer in Chicago and Biman Mukherji in Mumbai)