The mainland should make sure suspected bird flu patients are given early treatment even if they cannot afford medical fees, or risk putting the public in greater danger should the virus mutate, according to flu expert Zhong Nanshan . Dr Zhong, director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said the bird flu patient who died in Shanwei , Guangdong province, last month, delayed seeking treatment for seven days after she developed pneumonia symptoms because she could not afford to pay for treatment. Mainland hospitals often require patients to pay a deposit before they receive treatment, even in emergency cases. Dr Zhong said at least four similar cases - in which treatment of bird flu patients had been delayed because they could not pay deposits - had occurred in previous years. 'They were admitted to hospital when they suffered from serious respiratory problems and died in three to five days,' he said. Dr Zhong blamed the situation on grey areas in the law, which required hospitals to provide early treatment to patients but did not clarify who should be responsible for medical bills. 'If they were given treatment early, their lives could have been saved, but [they] died in all four cases,' he said yesterday. 'If the virus hops between human beings [as a result of mutation], then early isolation can help prevent the spread of the disease.' He said the risk of bird flu virus mutating was higher now because of the coincidence of a high number of bird flu and human influenza cases. The number of flu patients in Guangzhou had risen by 30 per cent this winter due to the particularly cold weather. Many patients who could not afford to visit doctors were grass-roots people such as migrant workers, as in the Shanwei case, he said. Ministry of Agriculture veterinary bureau director Li Jinxiang said yesterday that authorities were alarmed by a rise in bird flu outbreaks this year. Two confirmed outbreaks occurred in Tibet and another in Guizhou . He said prolonged cold weather had increased viral activity. Snowstorms had also damaged poultry facilities and delayed immunisation programmes, he said.