Chinese Told to Change Eating Habits as H7N9 Fatalities Rise

China asked its citizens to avoid contact with live poultry as it tries to stem a H7N9 bird flu outbreak whose death toll rose to seven today, with a further 17 people infected in three eastern provinces and Shanghai.

Consumers should avoid markets where poultry are butchered as authorities increase monitoring for the new influenza strain, Feng Zijian, head of emergency response at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in Beijing today. A vaccine is being prepared in case the virus starts spreading from human to human, health officials said.

“Consumers should no longer pursue the kind of eating habits where they buy fresh chickens that are butchered on the spot,” Feng told reporters at a briefing held jointly with the World Health Organization. “Stalls and markets in cities where live poultry is being butchered need to be closely monitored as possible venues of infection.”

Shares in Shanghai and Taiwan fell on concern that infections may become more widespread, with airlines leading the slump after trading resumed today following a two-day holiday. The H7N9 infections tally rose to 24 after Chinese authorities reported three more cases today. Asian makers of medical gloves rose, led by Supermax Corp., which said the outbreak in China will bolster earnings.

China “is confident” of controlling the virus, Ma Xiaowei, a vice minister at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said in an interview in Beijing yesterday. The nation has adequate stocks of flu medication and is developing a vaccine for possible production, he said.

Vaccine Production

A new vaccine will take six to eight months to produce, said Liang Wannian, head of the H7N9 working group at China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission. The nation will share information about the latest cases in a timely manner and boost hospitals’ ability to handle them, he said.

“If the virus become transmissible between humans, and especially if it becomes a pandemic, then we will have to speed up the production of vaccines,” Liang told reporters today. “For now, we are still making preparations because there is no clear evidence this virus can be transmitted between humans.”

The new strain “may hurt investment sentiment in the very near term,” Minggao Shen and Ben Wei, analysts at Citigroup Inc. in Hong Kong, wrote in a note today. “If the cases of infection continue to rise in the following days, the transportation sector could be hit first, followed by the food and retailing sectors.”

Travel Demand

Airline stocks in China fell on concern the outbreak will curb travel demand. Air China Ltd., the nation’s biggest carrier by market value, fell 3.4 percent to 5.15 yuan in Shanghai trading, the lowest price since Dec. 13. China Southern Airlines Ltd. lost 2.6 percent and China Eastern Airlines Corp. declined 3.2 percent. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index fell as much as 2 percent before closing down 0.6 percent.

Taiwan’s Taiex Index dropped 2.4 percent. China Airlines Ltd. closed 6 percent lower and Eva Airways Corp. fell 6.8 percent.

Supermax, Malaysia’s third-largest maker of medical gloves, gained 6.4 percent to close at the highest level since August. The H7N9 outbreak “augurs well” for the company’s growth plans and a surge in glove demand would lead to a profit increase, Group Managing Director Stanley Thai said in an e-mail. Top Glove Corp., Malaysia’s biggest rubber-glove maker, advanced as much as 4.7 percent.

Melbourne-based CSL Ltd., the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest maker of flu vaccines, is ready to assist the Chinese government if needed, the Australian Financial Review quoted Chief Executive Officer Brian McNamee as saying.

Genetic Hallmarks

H7N9 has some of the genetic hallmarks of an easily transmissible virus, Ron Fouchier, a professor of molecular virology from the Netherlands, who showed how H5N1 avian flu could become airborne, said April 5.

More than 600 people have been infected with the H5N1 bird flu strain since 2003, and almost 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 flu outbreak in more than 40 years and killing about 284,500 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

WHO Recommendations

Health authorities are still investigating how individual patients in China were infected by H7N9, and the WHO isn’t recommending travel or trade restrictions be applied at this stage, said Michael O’Leary, China representative of the Geneva-based United Nations health agency.

There has been no human-to-human transmission of H7N9, and no connection has been established yet between human infections of the virus and dead pigs found floating in a Shanghai river, O’Leary said at the Beijing briefing today.

All confirmed H7N9 infections have been in eastern China -- in Shanghai and in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. Shanghai, the financial capital, has been hit hardest, with 11 infections including five deaths.

Shanghai’s latest fatality was a 64-year-old man who fell ill on April 1 and died on April 7, the same day he was hospitalized, the city government press office said on its official microblog today.

Two further infections were found in Jiangsu province, including an 85-year-old man in Nanjing city who fell ill on March 28 and was hospitalized on April 1, and a 25-year-old woman in Zhenjiang city who became sick on March 30 and hospitalized on the same day. Both patients are now in serious condition, the provincial government’s health department said in a statement posted on its website.

Bird Cull

The cities of Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou have ordered live poultry markets to close and have seized birds, according to reports in the state-run CCTV and Xinhua News Agency.

The government in Nanjing, the capital of eastern Jiangsu province, banned non-farmers from raising fowl to help contain the outbreak, its city management bureau said. China’s Ministry of Agriculture also said today that visits to poultry farms nationwide would be strictly controlled to contain the virus.

In Hangzhou, where two of three people diagnosed with the disease have died, trade at a farm-produce market was suspended after the virus was found in quail and a cull started on April 6, Xinhua said.

Minimizing Risk

Hong Kong will implement rapid avian influenza tests from April 11 to ensure imported chickens are virus-free, the city’s Secretary for Food & Health Ko Wing-man announced, Xinhua reported today.

Minimizing the risk of human infections will hopefully help reduce the danger of the virus mutating to a form where it can spread between people, said Benjamin Cowling, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, in a Bloomberg Television interview today.

“The main concern is that this virus can suddenly acquire the ability to spread between humans, maybe by infecting a pig or human who has also got seasonal flu infection,” he said.

China may have to adopt similar measures to Hong Kong, which kills unsold live chickens at the end of each day to prevent viruses from spreading in a poultry market, he said.

— With assistance by Daryl Loo

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