Guangdong slow to apply lessons learnt on bird flu

Province known for its taste for fresh poultry has not gone as far as others to prevent spread

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 4:39am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 6:36am

Following the recent news of more bird flu cases in Guangdong - two of them Hong Kong residents who contracted the disease in Shenzhen -authorities in the province appear to be making serious efforts to contain the outbreak.

But questions remain about whether these will be sufficient to fix the problem permanently.

All live poultry markets were asked to close on Monday for disinfection after the province confirmed its sixth case of the H7N9 bird flu virus since August. That's not counting the Hongkongers, including an 80-year-old man who died on Thursday. The markets will close for a day before New Year's Day and before the Lunar New Year.

Live poultry markets were also ordered to strictly follow new rules, including cleaning cages daily and closing for disinfection every three months.

The move is intended to quell fears that the virus is spreading. Four new cases were discovered in the province in this month alone. Officials announced on December 11 that three samples taken at live poultry markets in Shenzhen's Longgang district tested positive for H7N9. Experts said the risk was high that new cases could emerge at any time.

So, can Guangdong's new containment measures stop the spread of H7N9 in the province? No one can say for sure, but their measures fall short of what Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing did in similar circumstances.

Beijing has banned selling live poultry since 2005, although vendors selling live chickens still appear at times in wet markets.

When Shanghai suffered a H7N9 outbreak earlier this year, it banned live poultry sales for more than two months. By the time trade resumed in June, the number of live poultry sellers had fallen to 200 from 461, and one of the city's three live poultry wholesale markets had closed permanently.

Hong Kong, where H5N1 bird flu killed six people in 1997, applies rigorous procedures to prevent further outbreaks. Wet market vendors must kill and freeze all poultry that isn't sold by the end of the working day.

The World Health Organisation warns that wet markets play a key role in spreading bird flu viruses. But at markets across Guangdong, live chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons are sometimes caged together before they are sold. Wild birds are also frequently seen in the province's wet markets. Such practices greatly increase the risk of viral cross-infection among the birds.

The challenge is to convince a public with an obsession for fresh food to change its habits.

As long ago as 2006, when a 32-year-old man in Guangzhou died from the H5N1 bird flu virus, local media, health experts and the public debated whether to set up slaughterhouses and ban the live poultry trade.

Guangdong, which lies on migratory routes for birds in winter, appears hesitant to apply lessons learnt by other cities. It may have to deal with more bird flu outbreaks in future.