A worker carries a cage to catch pigeons at the People's Square as a precautionary measure against bird flu in Shanghai, where two more cases of human infection of a new strain of bird flu was reported. (AP)

The chicken coop was empty Wednesday at the northern Beijing home of a man who gave only his surname, Bai. On a normal day, he sells 20 to 30 chickens from the wooden structure that faces the dusty street, putting aside money to buy an apartment in his native Sichuan.

But with the recent outbreak of bird flu in China, these are not normal days in the country’s chicken markets. Bai stopped selling birds after learning of the flu two weeks ago, and the only things in the front room of his ramshackle home are a freezer and some smoked pork hanging from the ceiling. A local official has come by to make sure he was closed.

He might not be open for business any time soon. The Chinese state news agency reported Wednesday that 14 new cases of bird flu were identified Tuesday and that two more people died, bringing the total number of cases to 77, with 16 dead since March 31. Although initially discovered in Shanghai and its neighboring provinces, this strain of bird flu, the H7N9 virus, has broken out in several places, including Beijing, and might be slowly gaining pace.

The government is urging people to move quickly to head off the spread of the disease, most importantly closing down chicken markets. And many urban residents who keep pigeons as pets are trying to figure out what to do with their beloved birds.

So far, it does not appear that this strain of bird flu has spread from person to person, which government officials have stressed. But one new case involves a 4-year-old who has tested positive for the flu virus without showing any symptoms; a World Health Organization official in Geneva said the child might have caught it from “close and prolonged contact” with one of the other patients.

“I think we’re in unknown territory,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an e-mail. “The risk is that the H7N9 virus mutates so that it no longer just jumps from birds to people, but starts to go from people to people as in all the big flu pandemics.”

Hotez said there is “no evidence this has happened yet, but it’s something that requires vigilance.” He added that “the likelihood of a true pandemic is still small — but not zero.”

Various ramifications

The bird flu, which has killed more than one in every five people who have caught it, poses a political as well as public health challenge for the Chinese government. In 2002, an epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in Guangdong, but the Chinese government under then-president Jiang Zemin did not report it to the World Health Organization until February 2003, after reports appeared elsewhere. Even then, the government underestimated the number of cases, hindering a more effective response, according to its critics. Ultimately, SARS infected 8,273 people and killed 775 in 37 countries.

When Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, took office in March 2003, he and his premier, Wen Jiabao, sought to distinguish themselves by providing more information about the SARS epidemic.

Now people are watching whether newly installed President Xi Jinping and provincial and local leaders fully disclose the extent of the bird flu, or whether they try to play down the number and severity of cases to avoid any economic impact from a flu scare.

And the economic impact could be considerable. Since reports of flu surfaced two weeks ago, China’s poultry sector has sustained losses of more than $1.6 billion, an official at the country’s National Poultry Industry Association told the Reuters news agency Tuesday.

“Soy and other feedstocks used in the poultry industry have also been hit by this outbreak,” said a report by Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. Evidence of travel cancellations has been anecdotal, but could become important.

Extra precautions

The virus has been hard on the many small entrepreneurs selling chickens. The 47-year-old Bai from northern Beijing, who was making $16 to $32 a day selling the birds from Hebei, said he does not know how he will support his family. A former steel and ceramics factory worker, he said it isn’t as easy to earn money in Beijing as it was when he arrived in 1990.

“So far, the government’s management of this outbreak has largely been seen as positive. Chinese health authorities have been sharing information with the international community and communicating case information in a timely manner,” said Scott Rosenstein of Eurasia Group. He said “the appearance of H7N9 in China’s densely populated political capital . . . increases the stakes and difficulty of withholding information.”

Still, the experience with SARS has undermined trust in the government and heightened worries that the situation might be worse than portrayed in the state-run media. Many people and organizations are taking extra precautions.

The Daystar Academy in Beijing, which caters to expatriates, has 13 support staff workers from a local village, Naidong, where a case of bird flu was reported. The school has suspended three who come from families in the poultry business. Ian Bayly, the head of school, wrote to parents assuring them that the school was taking the staff members’ temperatures daily before allowing them to enter the school and requiring them to shower and change into school uniforms. It has told vendors to leave deliveries at the entrance to the school and stopped serving chicken and eggs.

Late Wednesday evening, the Shanghai information office announced that an 89-year-old man, who started running a fever Friday and who had been hospitalized Tuesday for pneumonia, had tested positive for the H7N9 virus at a hospital in the city’s Pudong district. He was said to be stable, and nine people who had close contact with him were under observation but had not exhibited symptoms.

Baylor’s Hotez said in his e-mail that “probably different types of flu virus have been circulating between birds and humans (and pigs and humans) in China for decades if not longer.

“It's just that only in the last decade since SARS that the Chinese government has been aggressive in watching [for a] virus [that could] jump from birds to people,” he said. “So it's difficult to know whether this type of flu activity is new or has been something going on for a while.”