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China Steps Up Fight against Bird Flu - 2004-02-01

Following criticism that it acted slowly to stop the spread of the bird flu, China is beginning a campaign to show it is fighting the disease. Chinese state television Sunday showed images of health officials checking hundreds of chickens and vaccinating them, and killing and burning hundreds more in areas affected by bird flu.

The government also set up a command center and a hotline where people can report suspected cases and get information on how prevent the disease.

China's efforts to show it is taking strong measures come after the World Health Organization said China should take act more urgently to stop the spread of the virus, which has struck 10 Asian nations.

World Health Organization spokesman Roy Wadia in Beijing says he would not classify the current situation as dire. He says, however, that WHO officials are concerned about the spread of the H5N1 flu virus among poultry flocks in China.

"The window of opportunity to act is actually getting smaller with each passing day," said Mr. Wadia.

He says transparency will be key to stopping the spread of the virus.

"We feel that there are steps that have been taken and that are being taken," he added. "However, we do ask for far more clarification when it comes to the surveillance systems in the high-risk areas. We also ask for more clarification when it comes to the vaccination programs."

Some international health officials have criticized China for its system of detecting and handling disease outbreaks. They say reporting mechanisms, despite the improvements made after last year's devastating outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), remain slow and inadequate.

World Health Organization officials expressed new concerns on Saturday, after the state Xinhua news agency reported China's fourth confirmed case of SARS in the past two months. Officials reported the news only after the patient, a 40-year-old man in Guangdong province, had recovered and been discharged from the hospital.

The H5N1 virus is highly contagious among fowl. It is known to have jumped to a few humans, and at least 10 people have died in Vietnam and Thailand. Scientists say there have been no human-to-human infections reported anywhere.

There have been no reported human cases in China. Officials, however, worry that human cases may appear in rural parts of the country where farmers live in close quarters with their poultry. They fear an outbreak could be especially devastating in remote areas where detecting and reporting cases is more difficult.