China's big cities step up battle to curb bird flu

CHINA - Amid experts' warnings that a new deadly bird flu virus could spread more widely across China, big cities have stepped up efforts to curb any further outbreak of the flu that has claimed six lives.

Shanghai, which reported four new cases of the H7N9 flu strain over the weekend raising its total count to 10 with four deaths, has disinfected its schools. This was to "protect the health and safety of students" returning to class today after a long weekend including a public holiday, it said.

Its move came as the Education Ministry ordered schools across China to "guarantee the health" of schoolchildren and teachers against infectious diseases, including the H7N9 virus.

They should also ensure food safety in canteens, remind students to wash their hands and monitor symptoms of illness.

The Chinese authorities stressed last Saturday that the cases are "isolated" and the H7N9 virus has not been transmitted between people.

Nonetheless, Chinese cities that have been unscathed so far are not taking their chances.

Beijing, the epicentre of the 2003 Sars crisis, is on high alert. It has entered an "emergency state" of preparedness, said the local Jinghua News on Sunday.

With its residents still spooked by memories of the slow official reaction to and cover-up of the Sars epidemic, Beijing has ordered an update of the city's virus prevention work by 4.30pm every day to the relevant authorities.

The city has also banned all carrier pigeon races. This follows a move to temporarily halt the popular sport by Shanghai, which earlier grounded nearly two million carrier pigeons and banned the sale of wild birds as pets.

The southern business hub of Shenzhen has stipulated that hospitals detecting suspected H7N9 virus cases must report them online within two hours.

China had 21 confirmed H7N9 cases as of Sunday, confined to eastern cities like Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou which have culled tens of thousands of fowl.

While the outbreak has so far been mostly concentrated in Shanghai, "the possibility of detection (of the virus) in a much broader area cannot be ruled out", top government veterinarian Yu Kangzhen told the official Xinhua news agency on Sunday. It is possible H7N9 is being carried into and around China by wild birds migrating to warmer climates, he added.

Dr Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for global health at American think-tank Council on Foreign Relations, told The Straits Times that "we may see the spread of the virus to other parts of China, or even other countries". "Birds fly, and people travel, and they may shed virus beyond the epicentre of the outbreak," he explained.

The virus could spread rapidly across China and the world if it becomes capable of human-to-human transmission, he added.

The China Food and Drug Administration has approved a new type of flu drug called "peramivir" that it believes may be effective in treating the H7N9 virus, Xinhua said. Peramivir is an anti-viral drug reported in 2009 to be able to combat the H1N1 swine flu virus, by preventing new virus from emerging from infected cells.

Efforts are under way in the United States to develop a specific vaccine for H7N9 with international partners.

China, which has 409 flu-monitoring sites nationwide, is taking part in the search for a cure. It "uploaded the H7N9 genome sequence so other virologists can study it", said Hong Kong-based infectious diseases expert David Hui.

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