Take the threat of bird flu seriously
Despite warnings about the deadly outbreak by health authorities, far too many continue to flout the ban on live poultry sales; this has to stop
The region has become accustomed to news of sporadic outbreaks or isolated cases of bird flu, spread by wild birds to poultry and communicable to humans. But, such is the potential threat these viruses pose, we should be alert to changes in the pattern of health warnings or precautions adopted by the authorities. Two examples stand out over the last few days in the current outbreak of the deadly H7N9 virus on the mainland. One is the issue of stern warnings on consecutive days by health authorities, which reinforced concern. The second is closer to home in Guangzhou, known for residents’ strong preference for buying live chickens, where a ban on sales at live poultry markets appears to have been enforced more rigorously than in the past. Vendors are reported to have been less willing to risk making secret sales of live chickens than during similar bans.
Since January, 16 provinces and municipalities have reported deaths and infections from the H7N9 bird flu virus, which killed at least 87 people by February 12, with most cases in the Pearl and Yangtze river delta areas. Amid criticism from some experts that the authorities had not acted quickly enough to ban live poultry from markets, the National Health Commission said the virus could spread further if it was not tightly controlled. A day before this statement it warned health authorities across the country, including Xinjiang and Tibet, of the risks. Thankfully, there are no signs of sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus, a puzzling outbreak in which affected poultry show no symptoms.
In these circumstances, transparency is paramount. Uncertainty or misinformation can lead to speculation and panic. We trust the authorities will regularly update the situation and keep channels to Hong Kong and other countries open. It is good that Beijing called all authorities involved to a meeting this week to urge stepped-up vigilance. It is, after all, dependent on transparency from local authorities to fight the outbreak effectively. During a politically sensitive time ahead of a major leadership transition later this year, local politicians may be tempted to play down bad news seen as a risk to their ambitions.