<!--:es-->China confirms bird flu in third-most populous province<!--:-->

China confirms bird flu in third-most populous province

BEIJING – China has suffered its first bird flu outbreak in southwestern Sichuan, the nation’s third-most populous province and a major agricultural base.

A disease that killed 1,800 birds in a village in Dazhu county in the southwest Chinese province in late December was confirmed as the H5N1 virus Tuesday, the agriculture ministry said on its website.

«It’s the first ever outbreak of bird flu in Sichuan,» said an official with the provincial livestock bureau, who declined to be named.

Nationwide, it was the 32nd outbreak among poultry since early 2005, based on a previous tally published by the authorities.

According to the same tally, 28 of the outbreaks have occurred within the past three months, raising fears that China is facing the risk of a nationwide epidemic among its poultry industry, the biggest in the world.

China has confirmed seven human cases of bird flu since late last year, including three fatalities, with the latest — the death of a 41-year-old woman — announced last week.

Sichuan, with more than 87 million inhabitants, has traditionally been one of the country’s main agricultural production areas due to its fertile and well-watered soil.

The Sichuan livestock bureau declined to speculate what caused the outbreak, which is the first on record in more than two weeks in China.

«At the moment, an expert team from the agriculture ministry in Beijing and our local staff are at the scene to investigate the cause of the outbreak,» said an official with the bureau, who gave his surname as Qu.

«So far, they haven’t reached a result.»

With little idea about how the feared virus spreads, authorities in Sichuan stuck to standard operating procedure — isolation of the outbreak through mass cullings and vaccinations.

The agriculture ministry said a total of 12,900 poultry were culled in the vicinity following the outbreak in Dazhu county.

The county’s remaining 4.6 million poultry have all been vaccinated, said Qu of the livestock bureau.

The government announced late last year it intended to vaccinate its entire poultry population of 14 billion against bird flu.

Following the confirmation of the latest outbreak, Hong Kong announced Wednesday the suspension of poultry and imports from Sichuan, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said.

Xinhua quoted a spokesman of the territory’s Health, Welfare and Food Bureau as saying the government had suspended the processing of applications for the importation of poultry and poultry meat from the province.

More than 70 people have died from bird flu throughout Asia since late 2003, with nearly 40 of the fatalities occurring in 2005 alone.

China is seen as a potential flashpoint for a feared global pandemic because of its massive poultry population and the nation’s often primitive farming conditions, where humans and animals live in close proximity.