WHO’s Beijing-based spokesman Roy Wadia said late last week, “It means that there is a question mark that hangs over the progress of the virus in China. It’s perhaps more significant to get animal viruses because this virus is something that is primarily in the animal sector.”
The WHO said it was unclear why China was not sharing the samples but also said there was no evidence of a SARS-style cover-up. In early December, China did agree to share virus samples isolated from human bird flu cases.
On Dec. 29, China confirmed its third human death from the H5N1 strain of bird flu. The 41-year-old woman had apparently contracted the disease in the southeastern province of Fujian, an area that had not officially reported previous outbreaks among birds. China has confirmed seven human cases of bird flu and new outbreaks in birds despite its nationwide effort to vaccinate all 14 million farm birds.
According to the WHO, investigators have not been able to confirm any direct contact between the woman and poultry prior to her illness. Most of the laboratory-confirmed human cases of bird flu have occurred in people working or living in direct contact with sick birds.
The announcement brings the global human death toll to 74, all in Asia but health experts fear that if preventive measures are not taken, the disease could mutate to spread easily between humans and spark a worldwide pandemic.
In Turkey, meanwhile, tests on five people believed to have bird flu were negative. Veterinary experts in Europe have been on alert after two outbreaks of H5N1 virus among poultry in Turkey, which lies on the path of migratory birds believed to spread the virus, and in Romania. No humans are known to have contracted the H5N1 virus in Turkey or Europe.
To help alert countries at risk along migration flyways, United Nations experts are developing a bird flu warning system that maps the routes of migratory birds. Officials said a pilot project is expected to be operational within six months and the final plan should be running in two years.
But health officials worry a widespread flu outbreak could occur before then. WHO experts have said the threat of another influenza pandemic is at its highest since 1968 when the last pandemic occurred. On its global pandemic alert scale, the world is currently at Phase 3 of 6, meaning a new influenza virus is causing disease in humans but has no or very little human-to-human transmission. Phase 6 signifies a pandemic where efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission occurs.