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China calls for calm after bird flu death

3rd January 2012

Chinese health authorities have urged people to remain calm following the death of a man in the southern city of Shenzhen, home to some 10 million people, which neighbours Hong Kong.

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The man, identified only by his surname Chen, died last weekend in hospital after he contracted the bird flu virus, but officials are urging citizens not to panic.

Thousands of chickens were recently culled in Hong Kong after health authorities found they were carrying the H5N1 bird flu virus. The man seems to have contracted the virus from infected poultry.

Shenzhen's health authorities are insistent that the virus does not spread from person to person, and that Chen must have contracted the virus directly from a bird, although they could not trace the infection to a specific chicken or fowl.

Chen's is the first reported human bird flu case in 18 months in China. When he developed a fever two weeks ago, the hospital initially diagnosed him with severe pneumonia.

The man, who was 39 years old and drove a bus for a living, had not left Shenzhen in the month before he died.

The man had also not had any contact with poultry.

The H5N1 virus is very deadly, and the human immune system is ill-equipped to fend it off.

In previous infections, the breathing complications arising from the human immune response to H5N1 were fatal in about 60% of cases.

However, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), H5N1 has never been identified in a sustained human-to-human epidemic.

Following the discovery that some poultry had been infected, authorities in China and Hong Kong have been trying to stop the disease from spreading among livestock.

Hong Kong's bird flu alert level is still 'serious', following the discovery that some chickens were carrying H5N1.

Poultry is now much harder to come by in Hong Kong and southern China.

China leads the world in terms of poultry population, and people in rural areas often live in close contact with the birds.

In a statement issued following Chen's death, the Shenzhen Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that the virus that had been found was 90% similar to H5N1 viruses previously isolated in ducks.

They said that this genetic similarity ruled out the possibility of a human-to-human infection, and argued that the virus is not currently transmissible between people.

Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection confirmed that the strain is similar to the one found in wild birds in Hong Kong.

The virus that killed Chen should also theoretically be susceptible to amantadine, a drug commonly used to slow viral infections to a rate that does not kill human sufferers.

But researchers are worried that the virus could mutate, transforming into something that could spread from person to person rapidly and efficiently.

Theoretically, such a virus would kill large numbers of people in a pandemic.


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