Town With No Fowl Shows Consequences of China’s Bird Flu Threat

In the village on the outskirts of Beijing where a 7-year-old girl became the Chinese capital’s first bird flu patient, poultry are conspicuous by their absence.

Authorities culled chickens and shut live poultry stalls to limit human exposure to farmed birds, which scientists believe are the most probable reservoir of the new H7N9 influenza strain. In the village of Gucheng, 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of central Beijing, the only source of chicken readily available to residents is in a supermarket that’s a 30-minute bus ride away.

Removal of the fowl, including live ones that used to be sold by the girl’s father from the doorstep to their home, highlights the seriousness with which officials are taking the flu. H7N9 has infected at least 131 people, killing 26, since its discovery in Shanghai three months ago, prompting market closures and restrictions on poultry trading to protect public health in Beijing, Shanghai, and the eight provinces affected.

“We are very well, our daughter is going to school now and we want life to go back to normal,” said the father, who only wanted to be identified by his surname Yao, when reached on his mobile phone. The native of Hebei province said he no longer sells chickens and will instead seek odd jobs to support his family.

His daughter’s H7N9 infection was confirmed on April 13.

When health workers tested the girl’s relatives and close contacts, they eventually found a 4-year-old boy who was also infected, though showed no symptoms of disease, suggesting more people may be catching the virus than reported. That boy’s family lived opposite a household that had bought chickens from the Yao family, according to Beijing health authorities.

H7N9 Poster

At a gate leading into the village, two security guards inspect vehicles to ensure they’re not carting in live poultry. Decontaminants are sprayed twice daily and hawkers are barred from setting up stalls on the sides of the main street, forcing some to sell their merchandise from the rooms they sleep in.

The single-room home of the 7-year-old girl is unoccupied. Through a window, a poster can be seen hanging on a wall, warning about the dangers of H7N9. A commercial refrigerator stands in the middle of the 20-square-meter large room beside a metal bed on which blankets and pillows are neatly stacked.

The Yao family hasn’t been seen in the village for weeks since the girl was discharged from hospital last month after falling sick on April 11, said Zheng Jie, a neighbor.

“They’ve moved away,” Zheng said as she squatted by a communal tap to wash a pot outside her home. “Many other families are also moving away. It’s become very quiet.”

No Chicken

Thousands of people once thronged to the village to buy chickens, ducks, pork and vegetables, she said. Now locals rely on the supermarket almost 10 kilometers outside the village.

“Anyway, we don’t even dare to eat chicken now,” said Zheng, whose family moved to the village in January from Henan province. “I just cook rice and vegetables.”

While the H7N9 virus doesn’t appear to harm poultry, the outbreak is dampening demand for agricultural produce and other businesses.

Consumption of soybean meal, used in livestock feed, is being hampered by a reduction in poultry demand, Wilmar International Inc. Chief Executive Officer Kuok Khoon Hong said in a May 8 statement.

Chen Dahai, who owns an electronics stall on the main street of Gucheng, said business is down by at least 60 percent as the ban on street-side stalls curbed foot-traffic and other customers avoid the village because of bird flu.

While Chen doesn’t blame the Yao family for their daughter’s illness, villagers are frustrated because many are stuck with one-year leases on their homes and 80 percent of shops are losing money, he said.

“We are very angry with what has happened,” said Chen, a 43-year-old father of two, who moved to the village from Heilongjiang province 16 years ago. “I don’t think customers will come back for at least another few months. We can’t blame them, we can only blame heaven.”

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