Bird flu sub-types affecting humans are named with science in mind, factually and without emotion. As innocuous as the four-character combinations of the letters H, N and numbers sound, though, there is every reason to be edgy about them. With H7N9 causing deaths around China, H9N2 re-emerging after a four-year hiatus and H5N1 a constant threat, a new killer variant, H10N8, has surfaced on the mainland. As with predecessors, health experts have warned that the jumping of the virus from poultry to people is enough cause for concern that it could lead to a pandemic.
Such a development is especially worrisome for Hong Kong and countries that import poultry from the mainland. The sheer numbers of chickens - 14 billion at any one time - and the close proximity of people to animals and birds makes for ideal breeding conditions for cross-species flu viruses. Up to 80 per cent of chickens are raised in backyards and densely populated southern China has traditionally been an influenza hotspot. Guangdong was the source of the Sars epidemic in 2003 and it was from where H5N1 originated in 1997.
Beijing's lack of transparency with Sars led to the virus' global spread. Serious deficiencies were exposed in the public health system and amid subsequent bird flu outbreaks, concerns raised about the manner in which poultry were bred and sold. The World Health Organisation lauds the changes in surveillance, monitoring and preparedness that have been put in place. But outsiders remain wary that there is the capacity to detect and contain outbreaks and the necessary transparency.
The manner in which H10N8 has been revealed and reported is cause for confidence. Confirmation that a 73-year-old woman in Jiangxi had died of the virus on December 6 came promptly, as did the announcement that a 55-year-old was in hospital in a critical condition. New cases and deaths from H7N9 appear to have been fastidiously reported. Yet the huge role the nation plays in the global poultry industry, the weaknesses of the health care system and the challenges posed by bird-rearing methods make for a challenging mix.
Early identification, transparency and containment are crucial in preventing pandemics. Education about the dangers of bird flu and investment in health care have to remain priorities, particularly in rural regions. Beijing has made great strides, but sustained strong political will at all levels of government is essential if outbreaks are to be kept in check.