China Bird Flu Deaths Rise to Six, Poultry Markets Shut

China’s death toll from a new strain of bird flu rose to six people as Shanghai began slaughtering birds at a local market and concerns of an outbreak sparked the biggest drop in Hong Kong stocks in more than eight months.

The latest death was of a 64-year-old man in Zhejiang province, the local health bureau said today. None of the 55 people who had close contact with him has shown symptoms of infection, the agency said on its website. Another 67-year-old in Zhejiang is in critical condition, according to the World Health Organization. Of the 16 confirmed human infections of the H7N9 strain of avian influenza, six are in Shanghai, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Concerns about more widespread infections pushed Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index down 2.7 percent and led to declines in the price of soybean, a key ingredient in chicken feed. There’s been no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus, and it’s too soon to say if the cases signal a pandemic, the Geneva-based WHO said.

“The apparent high death rate at present is of concern,” said Robert Booy, head of clinical research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance based at the University of Sydney. “More people with milder symptoms need to be tested to determine if we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of a more widespread mild infection,” he said in an e-mailed statement from the Australian Science Media Centre.

Poultry Markets

Shanghai will close all live poultry markets beginning tomorrow, city officials said at a briefing today. Markets in the Songjiang and Minhang districts were closed yesterday. The city has destroyed 20,536 birds so far, said Shao Linchu, an official at the city’s agriculture commission. The city, China’s financial hub, has reported four deaths from H7N9.

No virus was detected in any of the people who came into close contact with those who were ill, said Wu Fan, head of the city’s disease control center.

Health officials are investigating the extent of the outbreak, the source of infection and the mode of transmission, according to the WHO.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is “following the situation closely and coordinating with domestic and international partners in a number of areas,” including evaluating the public health risk and developing a candidate vaccine virus. The Atlanta-based agency said these were routine preparedness measures that also involve reviewing the H7N9 virus’s genetic sequence and assessing its severity and transmissibility, as well as seeing whether new tests should be developed.

Airlines Fall

China Southern Airlines Co., the country’s biggest domestic carrier, sank 8.5 percent in Hong Kong trading on concern the influenza will hurt travel demand. Air China Ltd., Asia’s largest carrier by market value, dropped 9.8 percent. The Hang Seng’s decline was the biggest decline since July 23. Markets in China were closed for a public holiday.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., China Eastern Airlines Corp., Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Qantas Airways Ltd. also declined, causing the Bloomberg Asia Pacific Airlines Index to drop the most in about 11 months.

In Europe, Air France-KLM Group, Europe’s biggest airline, fell as much as 7.9 percent in Paris trading, while Deutsche Lufthansa AG declined as much as 6.3 percent in Frankfurt and British Airways parent International Consolidated Airlines Group SA lost 7.8 percent in London.

Imports Halted

GFPT Pcl, a Thai producer of frozen chicken parts, advanced 3.4 percent.

“Concern about the bird flu outbreak in China will boost demand for poultry products from Thailand, which is among Asia’s biggest exporters,” Naree Apisawaittkan, an analyst at Phillip Securities (Thailand) Pcl, said by phone today. “We expect rising orders for Thai poultry from overseas customers in the region.”

Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on April 2 banned all forms of transport, trade and consumption of poultry via its northern border with China. The government also asked provinces to tightly monitor and punish any poultry smugglers.

Hong Kong will suspend live chicken imports if there is a bird flu outbreak in the proximity of a registered supplier in China, Health Secretary Ko Wing-man said April 3, according to a transcript published on the government’s website. Hong Kong conducts body temperature scans and random checks of travelers at the border, Ko said.

New Strain

Japanese airports have put up posters at entry points warning passengers from China to seek medical attention if they have flu-like symptoms, and are providing handouts to travelers to China asking them to wash hands, gargle and refrain from nearing animals, according to public broadcaster NHK.

The new strain of H7N9 hasn’t previously appeared in humans, the WHO said. The virus’s genetic sequence shows it’s a combination of an H7N9 virus that circulates in birds and an H9N2 pathogen, the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said in an April 3 report. One of the earliest infections was in a pork butcher, according to the ECDC report.

The flu pandemics of the past century, including the 1918 Spanish flu that killed as many as 50 million people, have all been triggered by the mixing of human and animal flu viruses that create new pathogens to which people have no immunity.

Contacts Monitored

One of the people who died in Shanghai transported poultry, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The man, 48, had symptoms including coughing and a fever, Xinhua reported. China Central Television reported April 2 that a woman who slaughtered birds at a farmers’ market had contracted the bird-flu strain.

“While poultry and pigs are infected globally with various strains of influenza, and there are isolated cases of human infection by direct contact, usually the disease is mild,” Jenny McKimm-Breschkin, virology project leader at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Melbourne, said in a statement. “It is more of a concern when those infected are dying or seriously ill as seen with this new virus.”

More than 400 close contacts of the infected people are being closely monitored, and none of them have developed any symptoms of illness, the Geneva-based WHO said yesterday.

A person who had close contact with a patient who died of H7N9 bird flu in Shanghai has been under treatment in quarantine after developing symptoms of fever, runny nose and throat itching, Xinhua reported yesterday, citing local authorities.

Consumer Concern

Concern the infections may prompt consumers to eat less poultry led soybeans to trade near the lowest since January. Soybean meal is a key ingredient in chicken feed. The soybean contract for May delivery lost as much as 0.8 percent to $13.615 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade. Futures fell yesterday to $13.61, the lowest since Jan. 11.

More than 600 people have been infected with the H5N1 bird flu strain since 2003, and about 60 percent have died, according to the WHO. Most had direct contact with infected poultry, and the virus hasn’t acquired the ability to spread easily between people.

The H1N1 virus responsible for the 2009 swine flu pandemic originated in pigs, then mixed with human and avian viruses, touching off the first global influenza outbreak in more than 40 years and killing about 284,500 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new virus is sensitive to Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Relenza treatments, the WHO said, citing preliminary test results from the WHO Collaborating Centre in China.

— With assistance by Simeon Bennett, and Feiwen Rong

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