Chinese authorities have reopened an investigation into whether bird flu was to blame for the death of a 12-year-old girl and illness in two other people, and are closely watching 192 people who had contact with them, state media said Monday. If confirmed, the cases would be China's first of the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu in humans.
Meanwhile, in a separate outbreak, officials have destroyed 6 million farm birds in 15 villages in China's northeast in an effort to contain the virus, news reports said.
Chinese health officials earlier ruled out bird flu in the Oct. 17 death of the 12-year-old girl in the central province of Hunan. But state media said Monday that they decided samples from the girl, her brother and a schoolteacher need more analysis, and have asked the World Health Organization for help.
"The possibility of human infection of the highly deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu cannot be ruled out," the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing an unnamed health ministry spokesman.
The virus has killed at least 62 people across Southeast Asia. Final results on China's suspected cases could take weeks, said Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing.
Wadia said it was not unusual for someone thought to be infected with a virus such as H5N1 to initially test negative but later test positive.
Blood samples taken shortly after exposure to the virus may not be conclusive because the body hasn't had time to make enough antibodies, requiring more samples to be taken later, he said. "The testing is actually complex," he said. "We're still trying to figure out exactly what support we can offer China."
Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, addressing a national anti-flu meeting by video link, called Sunday for tougher controls against bird flu, calling it the No. 1 killer of Chinese poultry and "a major threat to public health and security," Xinhua reported.
The girl in Hunan, He Yin, developed a high fever after coming into "close contact with sick birds" in the village of Wantang and died Oct. 17, Xinhua said. Her 9-year-old brother was hospitalized with similar symptoms but recovered.
The third suspected case was a 36-year-old teacher in the same county who reportedly fell ill after chopping raw chicken, Xinhua said. He was also recovering.
Some 192 people who had contact with the three people or dead poultry are under medical observation, the China Daily newspaper said. One of the people has acute bronchitis, the newspaper said.
China has reported four outbreaks of bird flu in poultry over the past month.
The latest was in the northeastern province of Liaoning, where affected villages were being guarded by armed police and medical staff in protective suits, the China Daily said. All vehicles entering the area must be disinfected, and poultry and eggs have been banned from local markets and restaurants, it said, reports the AP. I.L.