BEIJING- A Chinese village where a 10-year-old girl fell ill with bird flu had not reported any poultry outbreaks, indicating the virus might be going undetected or unreported, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.
WHO China representative Henk Bekedam said the situation, which had been found in other human cases both in China and in Southeast Asia, should be a warning that infections in people may not always be forewarned by mass deaths in animals.
“It's not always that clear that something is happening. Birds die. Poultry dies. And a farmer is used to birds sometimes dying. It's not always that clear that it is H5N1,” Bekedam told a meeting of the Foreign Correspondent's Club.
China's Xinhua news agency reported the latest human case late on Tuesday, citing the Ministry of Health. The girl, from the southern Guangxi region, had been ill with pneumonia and fever since Nov. 23 and was under emergency treatment in hospital, the report said.
China has seen some 30 outbreaks this year of the H5N1 strain of bird flu. 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.
China has confirmed two human deaths from bird flu, both in the eastern province of Anhui. A 9-year-old boy in Hunan province survived the disease, while his dead sister is a suspected case.
The government has promised resources and openness in fighting bird flu after being widely criticised for an initial cover-up of the SARS virus in 2003. But Health Minister Gao Qiang has said rural doctors might be ill-equipped and ill-trained to detect cases.
Bekedam reiterated that reporting must be timely and there should be incentives to do so, adding that in the case of one outbreak in Hunan birds began dying on Oct. 6 but it was another two weeks before the Agriculture Ministry was informed.
While China has been compensating farmers about 10 yuan (US$1.25) per bird culled, he said farmers also needed to be supported during the period before they were allowed to restock their birds and go back into business.
Bekedam said people in the countryside were becoming more aware of the virus but the fact that about 70 percent of China's poultry population live in backyards meant monitoring the health of chickens and ducks was a huge challenge.
“It is inappropriate to be telling people they should be fearing birds and ducks in their area. It's unrealistic—they live in the middle of it,” he said.