Twelve people held for spreading 'false rumors'

China culls poultry as bird flu cases grow

by Bill Savadove

AFP-JIJI

Residents of the Chinese city of Nanjing were ordered to cull all their poultry as local authorities stepped up attempts to halt the spread of the deadly H7N9 strain of avian influenza, state media reported Thursday.

Thousands of birds and livestock were slaughtered by the midnight Tuesday deadline in the city, located in Jiangsu Province, the China Daily said.

There have been nine deaths since China announced a little over a week ago that the H7N9 virus had been found in humans for the first time, and the number of cases has risen to 33.

Local governments announced five new instances Wednesday, but state media also reported that a 4-year-old boy in Shanghai had been released from hospital, the first person to be cured of the new virus.

Meanwhile, police across the country have detained at least a dozen people for spreading “false information” and rumors over the Internet about outbreaks of H7N9 where they lived, police statements showed, with authorities seeking to control “panic.”

The latest such announcement came from the southwestern city of Guiyang, where three people had been detained for up to 10 days. Their actions “caused panic among netizens and citizens,” police said.

The boy in Shanghai, whose full name was not disclosed, was diagnosed with H7N9 on April 4, three days after he developed a fever. Health experts said his recovery showed the benefit of early detection. To minimize side-effects, doctors did not give him large doses of antiviral drugs, state media reported.

Authorities say they do not know how the virus is spreading, though it is believed to be jumping to humans from birds — possibly chickens, pigeons or quail.

The Xinhua news agency reported that a top laboratory, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had attributed the strain to “wild birds from East Asia and chickens from east China.” The researchers found “no genes in H7N9 were traceable to pigs,” according to the agency.

China announced late Wednesday that it has set up a research project to develop a vaccine for H7N9 within the next seven months, Xinhua reported.

The World Health Organization said this week that there was no evidence that H7N9 was being transmitted from person to person — a development that would have the potential to trigger a pandemic. Chinese scientists have stepped up monitoring of migratory birds to prevent the virus from spreading that way, state media said.

In Nanjing, residents who did not comply with the order to cull all their poultry would be fined up to 50 yuan ($8), the China Daily said, adding that more than 2,000 officials dispatched by local authorities offered help to kill birds and animals. Another city, Zhenjiang, has banned live poultry sales, following Shanghai and others in Jiangsu Province, according to Xinhua.

Shanghai last week suspended trading in live poultry and shut markets in a bid to curb the outbreak, while Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, culled poultry after finding infected quail.

A Chinese newspaper again raised questions on the delay of more than three weeks between the death of the first victim and the announcement by the central government. The Southern Metropolis Daily claimed testing by Shanghai confirmed the H7N9 strain a week after the man’s death and linked the delay to the annual session of China’s legislature, when the government seeks to avoid negative news.

“Would not infections and deaths be less (if there had been an earlier announcement)?” asked the newspaper, part of a group known for investigative journalism.

Chinese officials say time was necessary to confirm the virus in people for the first time.

But China’s state media praised the government’s transparency, saying officials had “learned lessons” from the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak that Beijing was accused of trying to cover up. The WHO has also said it is satisfied with China’s information sharing so far with regards to H7N9 avian influenze.

But an academic said public skepticism toward the government in China reflected doubt in a society in which authorities seek to control information. “What is coming across . . . is this sense of mistrust of government handling,” said David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

During the SARS outbreak, rumors of the then-mysterious illness and the existence of cases eventually helped force the Chinese government to be more forthcoming about the virus, which killed around 800 people worldwide.

“Many of the so-called rumors in China turn out to be true,” Bandurski said, adding that a lack of official response facilitated the spread of whispers.