An unidentified disease has killed nine farmers and sickened 11 others in a rural part of China's western Sichuan province, prompting the government to dispatch an emergency team of researchers to investigate whether the deaths are related to bird flu, a Health Ministry spokesman said Saturday.
State media said the illnesses occurred between June 24 and July 21 in about 15 villages surrounding the city of Ziyang, 945 miles southwest of Beijing. All of the farmers had recently slaughtered sick pigs or sheep, and researchers from the health and agriculture ministries are investigating a possible link, the official New China News Agency said.
Mao Qunan, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, said such a concentrated cluster of abrupt, unexplained deaths was rare, and that the government was taking necessary precautions. Mao said researchers hoped to quickly determine whether the outbreak might be related to the bird flu virus that has devastated poultry flocks in nine countries across Asia and killed at least 56 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
International health experts have warned that bird flu, which so far has not been able to spread quickly among humans, could undergo a genetic change and cause a global pandemic, killing millions if not tens of millions of people. Experts have also warned that pigs, which often carry the human influenza virus, could contract bird flu and act as a "mixing bowl," accelerating the process of mutation.
Scientists in China and Indonesia have already found bird flu in pigs, and the Indonesian government announced Saturday that it would kill about 100 pigs near the home of three people who are believed to be the country's first fatalities from the disease.
In late April, the Chinese government reported an outbreak of bird flu among migratory waterfowl at a nature reserve in Qinghai province, which is northwest of Sichuan. Then, last month, China reported two more outbreaks in Xinjiang province, which is northwest of Qinghai. But the government has never reported any outbreaks of bird flu in Sichuan.
U.N. officials and independent researchers have complained that the Chinese government has not fully responded to urgent requests by the World Health Organization and other international health groups for information about the three outbreaks, including samples of the virus found, analyses of its genetic makeup and details about the extent of the infection and efforts to contain it.
Reached by telephone, a disease control official in Ziyang said health authorities have already ruled out bird flu as the cause of the farmers' deaths. He also said there had been no cases of bird flu reported among poultry or other livestock in the region. But the official declined to give his name and there was no official announcement of findings.
A state-run newspaper in western China, the Huaxi Metropolitan Daily, reported that the sickened farmers suffered flu-like symptoms in the early stages of the disease, including fever, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Later, the farmers suffered bleeding under the skin, shock and other symptoms, the newspaper said.
The newspaper said only one of the patients had recovered from the disease, while six of the 10 other surviving patients were in critical condition. The farmers were between the ages of 30 and 70, and all but one were men, the New China News Agency added.
State media said researchers have found no evidence the disease has been transmitted from person to person, noting that none of the farmers were related or had contact with each other.
Local authorities have taken steps to limit the spread of the disease, including forbidding farmers from slaughtering any more sick pigs or sheep, the New China News Agency said. The agency also said local authorities were immediately burying dead pigs or sheep discovered by farmers and carrying out sterilization measures, while requiring personnel to use protective gear and avoid direct contact with the carcasses.
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.