The World Health Organization said Thursday it sees no sign that bird flu is being passed from person to person after China reported its first cases of human infection. "There is not any evidence for human transmission so far," said Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China. "If there would be something like that, we would expect more people would be unexpectedly dying of very severe pneumonia." The Health Ministry on Wednesday reported China's first human cases of bird flu. It said there were two confirmed cases, a 24-year-old woman who died and a 9-year-old boy who recovered. It said the boy's 12-year-old sister, who died, was a suspected case.
The H5N1 bird flu virus has killed at least 64 people in Asia since 2003 and experts have warned that it could mutate into a form that can easily spread between people. Millions could die in a pandemic. Asked whether there was any sign that China was facing a flu epidemic, Bekedam said, "If there's evidence of human-to-human transmission, there will be small clusters. We are not at that stage."
But he warned of the need to be vigilant.
"We need to closely monitor the virus," Bekedam said. "The key is that at a certain moment, there will be changes, that we will be able to detect it early."
That means strong surveillance systems and quick responses, he said. "That's also a challenge not only for China, but a challenge for the whole world," he said.
Officials had warned that a human infection was inevitable in China, which has seen 11 outbreaks of bird flu since October among its vast poultry flocks.
Chinese officials initially said a 12-year-old girl who died in the central province of Hunan, where an outbreak was reported in poultry, tested negative for the virus, as did her brother and a schoolteacher who fell ill at the same time. But the government later asked the WHO to help re-examine the cases.
The teacher, who cut his hand while handling a chicken that may have been sick, was recovering in hospital, state media said. The WHO said the man was under observation and tests were still being carried out to see if he had contracted the virus.
The WHO said Chinese investigators were confident the girl died of bird flu, but she couldn't be considered a confirmed case under the agency's guidelines because her body was cremated and there weren't adequate samples for testing.
The 24-year-old woman who died was a poultry worker in the eastern province of Anhui, which suffered an outbreak on Oct. 20. Bekedam said the woman didn't live near that site but had been infected by birds that died in her village in a possible unreported case.
Health officials were also monitoring a poultry worker in Liaoning province in China's northeast, which has seen four outbreaks, prompting the vaccination and slaughter of millions of poultry.
The woman had tested negative for the virus and was leaving the hospital within 10 days, the China Daily newspaper said Thursday, citing Liaoning health officials.
Meanwhile, the government has ordered all ports to require passengers to fill out health forms, the official Xinhua News Agency said. In Guangdong province in the south, the cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai will check the temperatures of departing passengers, Xinhua said. Also Thursday, market operators in Shanghai were seeking to reassure shoppers about the safety of their chickens.
Sales of live chickens at Shanghai's Sanguantan Poultry and Eggs Wholesale Market have recently dropped by 90 percent to 5,000 a day, said a report posted on the city government's Web site, reports the AP. I.L.