China's health authorities have confirmed on Wednesday the first two human cases of bird flu in the country.
The two confirmed cases involve a nine-year-old boy in Xiangtan County, Hunan Province, and a 24-year-old woman in Zongyang County, Anhui Province.
The boy has been discharged from hospital. The woman died on November 10.
The boy's 12-year-old sister, who had similar symptoms as her brother and died on October 17, was reported by the Ministry of Health as "a suspected human case" of bird flu infection.
The experts from the ministry suspected that the girl had been infected with H5N1 strain of bird flu, but could not confirm it due to insufficient blood samples for laboratory tests, the ministry said on Wednesday.
Roy Wadia, the World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman in Beijing, told Xinhua that by strict definition, the girl in Hunan could not be confirmed as a human case as the samples collected from her were too limited.
"It is not surprising to see human cases of bird flu in China," he said.
"While any 'first' is, of course, symbolic, in purely medical and scientific terms this particular instance is more of a reiteration and continuation of the existing bird flu scenario in this part of the world than something that is completely 'new'", Wadia added.
It also indicates the ongoing challenge countries face in raising public awareness -- especially at the rural, backyard farmers' level -- of the dangers posed by avian flu, he said.
Hours before the confirmation was made, the Chinese government decided to reduce the taxes for businesses or individuals that raise, process or sell poultry, a move aimed at boosting public morale.
To date, 11 outbreaks around the country have been reported.
The decision was made at a State Council executive meeting, which adopted nine measures and promised continued financial subsidies for vaccinating and culling poultry in bird flu-hit areas and building up modern breeding farms to prevent poultry from living side by side with humans.
The government also promised to refund value-added tax on all poultry products until the middle of next year.
Meanwhile, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine on Wednesday issued an emergency circular to the country's entry and exit ports, urging them to strengthen prevention and control efforts against human infections of bird flu.
It requires all passengers to complete health information forms when entering and leaving the mainland. The circular also calls for the resumption of body temperature checks at Shenzhen and Zhuhai ports in south China.
The H5N1 strain of the virus has killed more than 60 people around the world since 2003 and is endemic in poultry flocks in many parts of Asia.
In the two most recent outbreaks in Xinjiang, a total of 322,500 reared birds were culled and all poultry and poultry products markets within ten kilometers of the affected villages have been closed.
On Tuesday, China announced plans to vaccinate its more than 14 billion farm birds, following Premier Wen's remarks last week that the country was "facing a serious situation" in controlling bird flu during his inspection tour of a bird flu-hit county in Liaoning Province, northeast China.
China has strong political commitment at the central government level in combating bird flu -- recent steps and statements have made that abundantly clear -- but translating this into action at the provincial and rural levels will be key, Wadia said.
(Xinhua News Agency November 17, 2005)