China is finally coming to terms with the enormous task it faces in trying to control H5N1, the viral strain causing highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). This is inevitably and closely tied to the equally long and difficult task of modernising the country’s massive farming sector, claimed the agriculture ministry in an August 2007 statement. China no longer has to worry about mass starvation but over 60% of its 1.3 billion people live in the countryside and earn just one-third of their city cousins.
With the world's biggest poultry population including many millions of backyard birds roaming free, China is at epicentre of the fight against AI. Food safety and animal disease problems like bird flu are the result of this kind of backwardness, said the Deputy Agriculture Minister, Yin Chengjie adding, “Preventing bird flu and other animal disease is quite difficult.” According to the ministry, there have been 25 human cases of H5N1 HPAI, including 16 deaths in China and dozens of outbreaks in poultry, causing the culling of millions of birds.
In May, Li Jiango, deputy director of Centre for Public Health Emergencies in the health ministry said that China needed more funds to fight bird flu. With the world’s biggest poultry flock alongside the largest human population, China is at unique risk from avian influenza, claimed Jiango. “Crucial area in the fight against bird flu is the countryside”, he said. Medical facilities and people’s knowledge about the disease are quite weak”, he told the audience at a ceremony to celebrate receipt of a US$2.65 million grant from World Bank to fight the disease.
As if to underline this threat, the Chinese government had recently announced what looked like a serious outbreak in the central province of Hunan. They reported over 11,000 birds having died and almost 53,000 requiring destruction in a short statement on 19 May.
Emphasising that China is still a developing country despite rapid industrialisation and phenomenal growth rates, Jiango paid tribute to government investment in fighting AI but pleaded for more money and technical assistance. At the root of China’s poultry problem with H5N1 and risk of a human pandemic is that more than half of poultry are raised in backyards in close contact with people. WHO epidemiologist, Nima Asgari, was cautious about avoiding a human pandemic. “Just because an avian influenza pandemic has not happened yet and media attention is elsewhere, it does not mean that the very real threat has gone away”, said Asgari.China has a poor record for detailed reporting of H5N1 events. In a clear reference to this gap, Elaine Sun (World Bank’s China operations manager), said World Bank hoped its China funding would help improve detection, reporting and planning. Since September 2006, China has only logged two H5N1 outbreaks in poultry (Tibet in March 2007 and Hunan in May 2007) with the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health). China recorded 13 human cases in 2006 and four so far in 2007.