Guangdong official back-pedals on bird-flu death
Stephen Chen and Joyce Ng
Guangdong authorities said yesterday they were unsure whether the death of a bird flu victim in Shenzhen was related to migratory birds, changing their tone a day after they described a wetland park visited by the victim as 'highly suspicious'.
Media reports last night, meanwhile, said the Shenzhen Centre for Disease Control and Prevention had found genetic mutations in the virus that infected the victim. But the mutated virus was not transmissible between humans. Hong Kong's government information service could not confirm the reports.
He Jianfeng, from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Guangdong, told Xinhua he was not yet able to determine how the 39-year-old bus driver, only identified as Chen, contracted the H5N1 bird flu virus, although Chen went for regular morning jogs at the wetland park, Waterlands Resort.
'There are two channels for humans to be infected with bird flu: through poultry and migratory birds. At the moment there is no solid evidence to prove Chen had contact with poultry or birds,' He said.
Investigators could not question Chen because he was in a coma before he died, He said. Chen's widow said he mostly stayed at home in the five days before he fell sick. She told the authorities she had no idea what Chen ate for lunch during that time, but he did not have poultry for his dinners - which she had cooked.
Chen had killed and cooked a chicken a month before he died, but He said that could not be the source of contagion because the incubation period of bird flu was not that long.
On Saturday, He told Guangzhou Daily that investigators were 'highly suspicious' that the driver had picked up the deadly virus from bird droppings at the park. Waterlands Resort covers 1.7 million square metres, with an artificial lake and wetland, in western Shenzhen. It's a rich area for food for migratory birds.
The authorities' comments on wetland parks as the source of the virus had unnerved many people who had been planning to spend the three-day New Year break outdoors.
But University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Guan Yi said that unless there were mass deaths of birds in wetland parks, people should not be worried about visiting them.
Guan said the mainland should not be hasty to cite the park as a contact source because they had no evidence to support the claim. Instead, the government should review its ineffective monitoring network.
'For more than a decade, the virus was always found in birds in Hong Kong before any human fell ill. The situation is the opposite on the mainland,' he said. 'Their approach seems to be to wait for someone to get sick and then guess where the virus came from. It's unreasonable.'
Mathew Cheng Ting-kee, centre manager of Hong Kong's Mai Po Nature Reserve, said it would not close to visitors because nothing abnormal had been found. Staff had put in place hygiene measures, including a foot basin to clean visitors' shoes and daily cleaning of handrails to remove bird droppings. Under a government guideline, Mai Po must close for three weeks if three birds, dead or live, are found infected with the flu virus inside the reserve area within 10 days.