Bird flu, which has killed at least 13 people in Vietnam, is largely transmitted through bird droppings and uncooked meat, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, doubting the need to ban imports of chicken meat by some countries.
When a contaminated chicken makes excrement the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which has triggered an Asia-wide health scare, circulates in the air and is carried by the wind, according to the WHO findings.
Piled one on top of the other in cramped cages, the birds easily pass the disease on with their dirty droppings, the WHO said, noting that chicken breeders also risked inhaling the bug and got infected easier.
On the other hand, it was virtually impossible to catch bird flu by eating cooked meat that is infected, said WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib.
"The cooking kills the virus," Chaib said, citing some WHO experts. Similarly, boiling the bird also destroyed the bug, Chaib said.
Fears about spreading the disease prompted Japan on Friday to ban Taiwan poultry imports after bird flu was discovered on the Chinese island. It also began burying the carcasses of 34,600 of its own birds that may have been infected.
The WHO warned that it was equally dangerous for humans to be close to infected birds whether they are alive or dead.
Only a few animals manage to survive once they catch bird flu and those who survive continue to lay contaminated droppings for a minimum of 10 days.
The WHO earlier confirmed that one more person has died from bird flu in Vietnam, but stressed that the disease was only being transmitted through birds and not yet through humans.
Vietnamese authorities have recorded 13 deaths due to the disease out of 18 suspected cases but the WHO has yet to verify the others.
The person died from the disease was a five-year-old child in the Vietnamese province of Nam Dinh.
Vietnam has ordered the slaughter of all chickens in the 12 regions grappling with a bird flu epidemic and banned the sale of poultry in Ho Chi Minh City, the country's largest metropolis.
South Korea, Japan and China's Taiwan Province were also battling their own outbreaks of bird flu, which is threatening to spoil next week's Lunar New Year celebrations across the region and comes amid a re-emergence of a few SARS cases in southern China.
Chicken buyers defiant on bird flu scare
The bird flu scare in the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan and Viet Nam has not gone unnoticed but it has not deterred China's enthusiasm for chicken.
Sales of chicken -- one of the mainstays in Chinese dinner tables -- are on the rise, driven by menu preparations for Spring Festival celebrations.
"Bird flu? I have heard of it," said Beijing resident Huang Yi. But she said there is no need to worry about the disease.
After all, the disease has not been found in Chinese mainland and imports of birds from the three affected countries have been banned, she said.
Her thoughts were echoed by Bo Wen, of the China Cuisine Association, who said nearly all restaurants in the country cook domestic chicken.
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) stores in Beijing are as crowded as always.
"I saw a big crowd there when I passed by at noon," said Qin Yannan, referring to a KFC store at the Maliandao street in the Xuanwu District of Beijing.
"Our sales of chicken have remained steady and as the Spring Festival nears, sales have even become rising," said a source with the Shouhang Guoli company, which has more than 30 chain stores in Beijing.
The source said all the chicken sold in the company's stores is from domestic breeders and therefore free of bird flu.
Meanwhile, sales of Chinese chicken in foreign markets have not been affected. A source with sales department of the Beijing Huadu Chicken Company said the export volume of the company's chicken remains normal. The company exports mainly to southeastern Asian countries.
Chinese authorities have taken quick steps to prevent bird flu from spreading. To date the Ministry of Agriculture and the State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine have imposed bans on the imports of ROK, Japanese and Vietnamese avian products.
To prevent the virus from entering the Chinese mainland and to protect the country's animal health, the two ministries have also issued orders for any ROK, Japanese and Vietnamese poultry and bird products already in China to be returned or destroyed.
Also people from the three countries, while entering the mainland, undergo health checks and quarantine measures.
"We have never stopped making efforts to prevent bird flu," said Li Yan with the Beijing station for veterinarian and health supervision and inspection.
(China Daily January 17, 2004)