China gets serious about avian flu

Government plans to inoculate at least 14 billion birds in effort to fight virus


HEFANGKOU, China -- For two months now, as the news in China about avian flu has become steadily more alarming, Cao Jiancang has slept just fine at night, a few feet away from about 200 of his youngest chickens.

The chicken farmer moved the chicks into his cozy brick shack to keep them safe from aggressive weasels lurking on his mountainside farm on the rural outskirts of Beijing.

Local officials have visited him twice since then to help him inoculate all 3,000 of his chickens against bird flu, but the weasels worry Cao more than the flu. The Communist Party can manage the latter, he said, including the seemingly overwhelming task of vaccinating all the poultry in the country, as the government this week announced it would do.

"I think that they definitely can do it," Cao said. "I watched television yesterday and heard the news that Premier Wen Jiabao is going to work hard on this. If we make a local analogy, it's just like in old times: When the emperor says something, it's for sure that it will get done."

China's announcement of its plan to inoculate an estimated 14 billion birds, and its subsequent first confirmation of human cases of the H5N1 virus strain, have again focused attention on the world's most populous country and its history of incubating pandemics.

As was the case with SARS in 2003, avian flu is exposing the strengths and weaknesses of one-party rule in battling an infectious disease. The key difference is that this time, top officials here and abroad are well aware of the virus' threat, and because of SARS, they are aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of a human outbreak.

China's top leaders seem to be responding now, after some missteps, by confronting the threat directly, cooperating more with international agencies and, perhaps most significant, publicizing in the state media the importance of confronting bird flu.

The government has recently shown its capacity for tough reactive measures by imposing strict quarantines, ordering the killing of chickens in areas with outbreaks and shutting down live poultry markets in Beijing.

This week, officials went significantly further with their promise to vaccinate all poultry, as many as 14 billion birds, free of charge. That plan, which was presented without a timetable, suggests how deeply the ruling Communist Party fears the potential health and economic effects of the virus.

The government also announced plans to increase production of the poultry vaccine, punish makers of fake or bad vaccines and protect the poultry industry financially.

Chinese scientists have also said they are prepared if necessary to produce their own version of Tamiflu, the antiviral drug that is believed to be the only available medicine effective against H5N1 in humans. China has also joined the race to develop a vaccine against the virus that would work in humans.

And in a country that takes its cue from the top leaders, Wen, China's second-ranking leader, featured prominently in state media reports about the government's efforts to "continue to control and wipe out the flu."

"`It is very clear that China is very committed to combating avian influenza. You can see it very clearly not only in agriculture, but in our dealings with the Ministry of Health," said Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's chief representative in China, at a news conference in Beijing yesterday. "At the moment, we are confident the government is responding well and responding strongly."

The H5N1 strain of avian flu has been killing birds in Asia since the 1990s, but it has spread more widely and quickly in the past two years and killed more than 60 people, raising fears that if the virus mutates and spreads easily among humans, it could kill millions. China's history with dangerous outbreaks attracts attention.

At least two and possibly all three of last century's deadly flu pandemics emerged from southern China, where ducks, chickens, pigs and people seem to form a potent viral stew.

Southern China also was the origin of the SARS outbreak in late 2002 that spread in part because of the government's cover-up of the problem.

Now, as the leadership appears to show the will to fight the avian flu, its stepped-up efforts might still be hampered by the government's own weakness - its corrupt, ill-equipped bureaucracy that has an instinct for secrecy and obfuscation.

Poor local oversight may be partly to blame, for example, for the widespread use of useless, counterfeit vaccines by chicken farmers in northeast China's Liaoning province that may have exacerbated an outbreak there.

When a 12-year-old girl died last month and her nine-year-old brother took ill in Hunan province, officials' initial denials of a connection to avian flu proved to be a troubling indication of the obstacles the government faces within its ranks, where authorities at every level fear reporting bad news.

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