The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that China should learn a lesson from the belated confirmation of a human case of bird flu by concentrating on the present challenges like publicity, strengthening surveillance and improving communications.
"From a purely public health point of view, now in 2006, it makes no difference whether China turns out to have had 10 or 20 or more cases in 2003 that have only just been discovered," said Roy Wadia, WHO Beijing office spokesman. That's because the virus facing China in 2006 is very different from that of 2003, he said.
Wadia told Xinhua in an interview that the important thing at the moment was to focus on the challenges China is now facing -- "so that we as a world can collectively prepare better for a possible pandemic."
"There was no outbreak in poultry when this case appeared which again highlights the importance of strengthening surveillance in the animal sector," Wadia said.
Even if there were no reported animal outbreaks when human cases were picked up in China public health authorities should keep warning people, especially farmers and others at high risk, to be careful and protect themselves, he added. That would also push agriculture and animal health authorities to investigate possible outbreaks in poultry.
The spokesman said the revelation of the 2003 case showed a lack of internal communication in the government structure. The Ministry of Health was not informed about the positive test results when military researchers discovered the man was in fact an H5N1 case, according to WHO.
"The Ministry has acknowledged that communication and reporting mechanisms need to be strengthened to ensure that an incident like this does not occur in the future," Wadia said. However, focusing on challenges and improvements did not mean China could ignore the past. "Ignoring or downplaying them is dangerous both for human and economic health," Wadia said.
The Chinese Ministry of Health confirmed Tuesday that the country's first human case of H5N1 bird flu occurred in November 2003 which is two years earlier than previously thought.
A letter published by eight Chinese scientists on June 22 in the New England Journal of Medicine said that the bird flu virus had been isolated in a 24-year-old man who died in Beijing in 2003. Initially, the case was thought to be SARS but tests proved negative.
The Ministry said parallel laboratory tests carried out in collaboration with the WHO last month confirmed it was a human case of bird flu. The newly-confirmed case brought China's human infections of bird flu to 20 with a death toll of 13.
The first human cases of H5N1 bird flu occurred in Hong Kong in 1997. Eighteen cases, including six deaths, were reported at that time. The current cycle of the virus began in late 2003 with the first victim in Vietnam in January 2004.
So far globally there have been 235 confirmed human cases of bird flu. By August 8, 137 of had died according to WHO figures.
(Xinhua News Agency August 10, 2006)