By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
BEIJING, Sept. 18 -- China scrambled to respond Tuesday to an outbreak of bird flu among ducks in the southern city of Guangzhou. But as officials sought to reassure the public, there were signs that China was reluctant to release details about a possible health threat.
The outbreak in Guangzhou's Panyu district is the first of the H5N1 bird flu strain since May, but it has been brought under control, the Agriculture Ministry said. The ministry's Web site said 36,130 ducks had been culled; other news reports suggested more than double that number had been killed.
"All areas which have bird flu outbreaks have to stop trade in live poultry across the board, and shut wet markets," or live animal markets, the director of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, Zhou Bohua, said at a news conference in Beijing.
China's government has previously played down the severity of natural disasters, public health crises and other problems. It was accused of initially covering up and then responding too slowly to the 2003 SARS crisis, which is also believed to have originated in Guangdong province. The government is particularly sensitive to international perceptions now, as it tries to respond to concerns about food safety.
Zhou's department is in charge of making sure that animal products from contaminated areas do not make it to market. "Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and other big cities have already abandoned wet markets and conduct regulated slaughter, transportation and selling," Zhou said, adding that "every step of the way" was being supervised.
But the Agriculture Ministry in Beijing, Panyu district officials in Guangzhou and other local officials all refused to answer specific questions, saying they would have to wait until a uniform statement was prepared for all news media. That statement was not released.
In Guangzhou, reporters and editors were told not to cover the outbreak themselves, but to use only the version provided by the official New China News Agency. In Hong Kong, some media chafed at the restrictions.
"Alarm Bells Are Ringing," Hong Kong's Mingpao newspaper editorialized Tuesday, a day after the city suspended chilled and frozen duck imports from Guangdong.
The paper said that birds began to die in large numbers in Panyu on Sept. 5, but that it wasn't until last Wednesday that local officials told the Panyu government of the outbreak and not until Thursday that Guangdong provincial authorities learned of it.
"Because local officials have delayed reporting the outbreak to the authorities, people are worried that the central government's rules governing the prevention and control of avian flu may not have been fully followed," the paper said.
On her blog, Luqiu Luwei, a well-known reporter for Phoenix TV, also criticized the delay. "The flaws exposed by this process make people worry about it," she wrote.
About 200 people worldwide have died of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, most of them in Indonesia and Vietnam, according to the World Health Organization. More than 150 million birds have died of the disease or been culled in an effort to prevent its spread.
While some experts speculated that the outbreak in China may have been caused in part because bird flu vaccine was improperly applied to the duck population, others said it was also possible that the vaccine, intended for chickens, was simply not effective in ducks.
Guangdong officials said that the ducks in Guangzhou were injected with bird flu vaccine one to 10 days ago and that the antibodies had not yet been built up in the birds, according to state media reports that cited Yu Yedong, Guangdong's director of animal epidemic prevention and supervision.
A woman from the Animal Husbandry Institute at Guangdong's Academy of Agricultural Sciences who declined to give her name expressed confidence in the government. "Who else can we trust?" she said. "If you are suspicious with anything you eat here, you'd better eat nothing."
Researchers Zhang Jie, Li Jie and Jin Ling contributed to this report.