Chinese Bird Flu Treatment Practices Questioned

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 20, 2005; 1:36 PM

JAKARTA, Indonesia, June 20 -- Officials from two U.N. agencies contacted the Chinese government Monday to press their concerns over what animal health experts have reported is the widespread use of a human influenza drug by Chinese farmers to treat bird flu in poultry.

The World Health Organization's (WHO's) chief representative in Beijing, Henk Bekedam, raised the issue with the Chinese health ministry as the first step in obtaining more information about the practice, U.N. officials said. They said WHO experts would hold more discussions with Chinese officials in the coming days.

At the same time, a representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Beijing contacted counterparts at the Chinese agriculture ministry seeking similar details, U.N. officials said.

These initiatives came after The Washington Post reported Saturday that, according to animal health experts, Chinese farmers had used the anti-viral drug, amantadine, to treat bird flu in chickens as long ago as the late 1990s with the approval and encouragement of government officials. Researchers have concluded that as a result the drug can no longer protect people if the bird flu virus circulating in Southeast Asia emerges as a human pandemic.

"This has highly significant public health implications," said Roy Wadia, spokesman for WHO's China office. He added, "In any situation, the proper use and proper administration of anti-virals must be adhered to because the dangers of drug resistance are extremely high when drugs are not used in the manner for which they are made."

Since January 2004, bird flu has struck nine East Asian countries, ravaging poultry farms and killing at least 54 people. International health experts have warned the virus could easily undergo a genetic change, creating a new strain capable of killing tens of millions of people worldwide. Researchers determined last year that the virus circulating in much of Southeast Asia had grown resistant to amantadine, the least expensive drug available for treating influenza.

China's use of amantadine, which violated international livestock guidelines, was widespread several years before the government informed the World Animal Health Organization in February 2004 that bird flu had broken out on Chinese poultry farms, according to pharmaceutical executives and veterinarians.

After extensive discussions Monday among WHO experts at its global and regional headquarters, senior agency officials in Geneva directed the Beijing office to raise The Post article with China's health ministry and ask for clarification.

But WHO spokesmen said much of the information sought would have to come from conversations between FAO officials and the Chinese agriculture ministry because the issue in question involved livestock practices.

Juan Lubroth, a senior officer in the FAO's animal health service, said his agency wants to learn whether amantadine had been licensed for veterinary purposes and used only after proper clinical trials in animals. Lubroth, who is based at FAO headquarters in Rome, said he was currently unaware of any testing of the drug on animals.

He added that international agriculture officials would be especially concerned if Chinese farmers had provided their chickens with inadequate doses of the drug. This practice, called under dosing, typically leads to drug resistance, he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company