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In China, markets a worry as bird flu spreads

by 5m Editor
12 April 2006, at 12:00am

CHINA - The cacophony of squawking, clucking, honking and quacking that two football fields' worth of live poultry makes is the first thing you notice approaching the Baixing Free-Range Bird Wholesale Market. Then the smell of feathers, feed, dirt and faeces hits.

In China, markets a worry as bird flu spreads - CHINA - The cacophony of squawking, clucking, honking and quacking that two football fields' worth of live poultry makes is the first thing you notice approaching the Baixing Free-Range Bird Wholesale Market. Then the smell of feathers, feed, dirt and faeces hits.

Tens of thousands of birds from all over southern China are trucked each day to the market in a dust-covered suburb of Guangzhou where they are stocked temporarily in small pens and sold -- live or butchered -- to retailers or restaurants. It is a massive one-stop shop for all kinds of poultry, including chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons. It is also possibly the ideal place for avian influenza to spread.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has spread with surprising speed. Since January, more than 30 countries have reported outbreaks. Sitting in the middle of the market, duck vendor Li Jingwen seems oblivious to the noise and stench, and brushes off suggestions that bird flu might be something to fear.

As his colleagues toss ducks into a basket to be weighed and sold, Li loads a wad of tobacco into a bamboo water pipe and explains. "So few people have been infected by bird flu," he says, squinting to avoid dust and feathers stirred up by a janitor. "The common cold infects and kills more people around the world."

A woman who runs the tiny convenience store next to the feed depot by the market's exit feels the same way. "The chickens aren't afraid, so why should we be?" The virus mostly infects birds, and scientists have said that test results show about one percent of live poultry in the area have the H5N1 virus. In other words, they are infected and can shed the virus in their faeces, yet they appear healthy.

But since 2003, H5N1 has infected more than 190 people and killed over half. Twelve have so far died in China, including a man in Guangzhou. With such a high death rate, health experts have been warning the virus could pose the greatest threat in years if it mutates and acquires the ability to spread easily between humans. Millions of people could die in a global pandemic that would also cripple economies for months or even longer.

MARKET WORRIES

Markets like Baixing, and smaller "wet markets" that are ubiquitous in Chinese villages, towns and cities, are worrisome. Scientists rate very close contact between humans and infected birds as the greatest risk.

"However, the other setting is the marketplace, where you have a huge volume of animals coming through and changing all the time," said Julie Hall, in charge of the WHO's efforts against bird flu in China. "The mix of different species and the way in which live markets operate clearly is something which we need to look at."

The Chinese government is taking measures to better regulate its markets. In some places, like Shanghai, the sale of live poultry has been banned in city wet markets. China has also been vaccinating farmed poultry in the past few years. In Guangzhou, the capital of the populous and economically vibrant southern province of Guangdong, health officials have warned that the warming weather does not mean bird flu is gone. The virus tends to thrive in cooler months.

Hong Kong, too, has stepped up its monitoring of incoming birds, regularly disinfects markets and plans to set up a central slaughterhouse in the coming years. But some say the measures taken on the mainland are insufficient. Guan Yi, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, says Guangdong's testing is slow and the sample sizes are too small to be meaningful in the hunt for infected birds.

"The Guangdong market is a major consumer market, most of the poultry is imported from other provinces. Just ask them: How do you detect the millions and millions of poultry imported every day, imported from the other neighbouring provinces?" he said. The fact that birds are vaccinated also complicates the testing picture, he added. "What's the significance of checking the antibodies? Was the antibody caused by vaccine or infection? How do you interpret the significance?" he asked.

For those who spend their days in the noisy Baixing market, it's all a bit over-hyped. All vehicles coming in have to drive through a shallow pool of water and disinfectant, but that's about the only obvious precaution. "It's safe here," said a cleaning lady, also surnamed Li, as she scooped up a dead chicken and tossed it into a special receptacle behind the guard post for disposal. Asked how the bird died, she said she didn't know, and added: "A few die every day". (Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck in Beijing)

ThePoultrySite News Desk

5m Editor