China hails bird flu vaccine amid prophesies of doom

Beijing: China has developed vaccines that block the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu among birds and mammals, Xinhua news agency reported, as scientists in the west warned of a possible global pandemic killing millions.

Scientists fear that avian flu, which is infectious in birds but does not spread easily among humans, could mutate into a form more capable of passing from animals to people.

The H5N1 strain first surfaced in poultry in Hong Kong and China eight years ago and has killed 37 people in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia.

Global health officials fear it could mutate into a strain that could rival the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed between 20 and 40 million people.

“Experiments show the efficiency rate of the newly developed vaccines in preventing infection by the H5N1 virus is 100 percent,” Chen Hualan, director of the China National Bird Flu Reference Laboratory, was quoted as saying in an overnight report.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture had given its approval, and a sales permit, for the vaccines, Xinhua said, without mentioning whether the treatments had been evaluated outside the country.

The agency said supplies of the new vaccines had already been sent to far-flung western Qinghai province, where China has been scrambling to contain its first breakout since late 2004 after 178 geese were found dead of the H5N1 virus on May 4.

Health departments in the provincial capital Xining and prefectures around the province had been mobilised to prevent the spread of the disease, Xinhua quoted Ai Keyuan, an official with the provincial health bureau, as saying.

Local departments were being told how to dispose of bird droppings and hospitals in the affected county had opened separate departments for screening patients with fever and to observe people who had close contact with the birds.

“All hospitals have been told to set up a task force and put aside medication and facilities for the treatment of any avian flu cases that might be detected,” Ai said.

The new vaccines also prevented the spread of avian flu from migratory birds to waterfowl, which could easily pass the disease to domesticated birds, Xinhua said.

China was willing to provide technical anti-epidemic support to other countries and poultry farms in Vietnam had begun experimenting with the Chinese vaccines, it said.

“Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic,” said Michael Osterholm, of the University of Minnesota, on Wednesday in a special section of the journal Nature devoted to avian flu.

“There is a critical need for comprehensive medical and non-medical pandemic planning at the ground level that goes beyond what has been considered so far.”

Scientists say any bird flu pandemic will likely start in Asia and could kill many millions.

New influenza strains have caused pandemics in the past, most recently in 1956-1957 and 1967-1968, killing a combined 4.5 million people.