Update on bird flu in China

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MARCO WERMAN: Now to a very different public health issue. Remember bird flu? Well, it's spreading in Asia again. New infections in birds and people have rekindled fears that the virus could spark a human flu pandemic. Experts say the risk is probably no greater now than in other recent years, but in China, four human cases � 3 of them fatal � have been reported this month. And health officials there are urging vigilance as hundreds of millions of Chinese are on the move, heading home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Beijing.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Crowds like this one are waiting all over China to get on their trains and buses and get home to greet the New Year. It's the year of the Ox, but chicken is the dish of choice in many Chinese homes. At this train station in Sichuan, some travelers carry live chickens in wicker baskets. The chickens poke their heads out and check out the crowds as they move along. Close contact with infected birds is the main route of transmission for bird flu. China has seen four cases of bird flu in humans this month, but there have been no corresponding cases reported in poultry. Vincent Martin says that suggests a problem with the disease surveillance system. He's the acting Head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization office in Beijing.

VINCENT MARTIN: Well, it tells you that in a way the surveillance system must have some weaknesses or gaps, because we should have heard about either outbreak or some thyroid circulation in the poultry population before hearing of human cases.

MAGISTAD: Martin says one of the new bird flu cases was in the eastern province of Shandong. The 27-year-old woman died there last Saturday, yet there had been no reported outbreak there of bird flu in birds. There had been a reported outbreak in birds in December in another eastern province, Jinzhou. Martin says bird flu had never been reported there before, but it doesn't necessarily mean bird flu is encroaching into new areas.

MARTIN: It could be that the surveillance system last year or the year before was not good enough to detect the disease in these provinces. There is always a possibility of under reporting in the fact that here at the local level, the disease is not recognized or is not being reported. This is something that we know that the Minister of Agriculture is aware of, and they are working on it to try to strengthen the system and make sure that as much as possible these cases are being reported at the central level.

MAGISTAD: The World Health Organization is also keeping close tabs on the new bird flu cases. Mika Alexander is the WHO's spokesperson in Beijing. She says this is the time of year when bird flu tends to be most active.

MIKA ALEXANDER: So the fact that we have these four cases is in line with the same patterns we've seen other years. Last year we had three cases in February. So I'd say there's no reason to change our level of concern.

MAGISTAD: That level of concern would grow if there were signs that the H5N1 avian flu virus had mutated and found a more efficient way to jump from human to human. That could lead to a global pandemic. The last influenza pandemic was in 1968. The deadliest on record was just after the First World War; that pandemic killed more than 20 million people. The current strain of bird flu first surfaced 12 years ago. That's given the world some time to prepare for a possible pandemic. During that time, there have been almost 400 human cases of bird flu, about two-thirds of them fatal. Global efforts are underway to find an effective bird flu vaccine for humans. Meanwhile, WHO spokesperson Mika Alexander says Chinese traveling for the Lunar New Year should take basic precautions.

MIKA ALEXANDER: You want to wash your hands when you touch raw meat or before you eat. You want to make sure your poultry is well cooked, and stay away from infected or dead birds.

MAGISTAD: The hope is that this Lunar New Year and this influenza season will pass like others in recent years: with a few contained cases and with no sign that the virus has mutated into something virulent. That will buy scientists more time to develop a vaccine to protect the global population for whenever the next pandemic comes. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, in Beijing.