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WHO accuses China of refusing to share samples of new bird flu strain

Thursday, November 02, 2006 by: Jessica Fraser
Tags: the WHO, China, bird flu

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(NewsTarget) The World Health Organization (WHO) recently accused China's Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) of refusing to share samples of a new strain of bird flu, which has hampered global efforts to track the spread of the virus.

The WHO's accusation followed the publication of a scientific report that said a new strain of bird flu -- called H5N1 Fujian-like -- has become widespread throughout southern China and Southeast Asia.

The study -- conducted by Chinese and American scientists -- found that one out of every 30 ducks and one out of every 30 geese in live poultry markets tested positive in the past year for H5N1 bird flu in six southern Chinese provinces: Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan and Hunan provinces.

According to Dr. Julie Hall, an infectious disease expert at the WHO's Beijing office, the MOA has not shared samples of the new strain with the WHO.

"There's a stark difference between what we're hearing from the researchers and what the ministry of agriculture says," Hall said. "Unless the ministry tells us what's going on and shares viruses on a regular basis, we will be doing diagnostics on strains that are old."

Hall says the MOA has not shared bird flu strain samples with the WHO since 2004, which has hindered the health watchdog's ability to monitor mutations of the disease that could indicate an ability to spread easily from human to human.

"This is a new disease," Hall said. "Nobody knows how to tackle it, nobody in the world has all the answers, but if (the MOA) share(s) ... then we will all gain from that."

Hall said that following the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak in China, the MOA reformed its disease reporting policies following international outrage at its refusal to share information. However, critics of the MOA speculate that its apparent decision to withhold bird flu information may be for commercial reasons. China is home to 14 billion poultry and 90 percent of the world's geese population, and an H5N1 vaccine would be highly profitable.

The MOA has responded to criticism for its refusal to share flu samples by citing unaccredited use of Chinese scientists' research overseas.


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