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Bird Flu 'Under Control,'  Claims China - 2004-02-05

China says it has bird flu under control, but agriculture officials on Thursday expressed concerns about weaknesses in the country's disease prevention system. Officials say the H5N1 virus, which has killed at least 16 people across much of Asia, has not infected any humans in China.

Agriculture officials held a news conference Thursday as China's government continued to adopt a series of measures to show it is doing everything possible to contain bird flu. Confirmed and suspected cases have shown up in several provinces.

Agriculture Vice Minister Liu Jian told reporters the government is confident in its battle against the disease and there have been no human infections in China.

However, he says, stopping the bird flu in the world's most populous nation is going to be a tough job.

Mr. Liu says some parts of China's animal disease prevention system are weak and vulnerable and the public has limited knowledge about the disease and ways to prevent it.

This type of flu is passed easily from bird to bird, and transmission from bird to human has occurred.

The big concern is that most of the eight billion chickens in China are raised on small farms where they are kept in close proximity to people. Officials fear these conditions may facilitate the disease's jump from the animals to humans. Scientists say an even bigger fear is the possibility that the virus could eventually become transmissible through human-to-human contact.

The World Health Organization says the bird flu is more prevalent in Asia than previously believed, raising the threat to people.

For now, officials are expressing relief that this has not happened in China. They have launched aggressive awareness campaigns, showing people how to avoid infection by cooking poultry and eggs thoroughly.

Despite government assurances that eating well cooked poultry is safe, staff at several Beijing supermarkets were seen removing chicken from freezers on Thursday.

Chinese officials have gone to great lengths to show they are handling the outbreak in a transparent manner. State television has shown images of workers culling thousands of infected chickens, and command centers have been set up to provide information on outbreaks.

However, foreign journalists have complained that officials have denied them access to places where the presence of the flu has been confirmed. Some say they have been detained after going to the affected areas.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday denied there is any concerted effort to keep foreign reporters from covering the outbreak.