China Pretends Bird Flu Doesn't Exist

What’s the quickest way to make the bird flu go away?

What's the quickest way to make the bird flu go away?

That's a question China's poultry industry, facing $3.3 billion in losses due to a recent outbreak of bird flu (and still reeling from almost $10 billion in losses from a spring outbreak), may have finally solved. According to a Feb. 4 report by Xinhua, China's state-owned newswire, poultry companies and associations in Guangdong province, home to a significant percentage of China's most recent H7N9 bird flu infections, are proposing to require local authorities drop "bird" or "avian" and simply refer to the disease as "the flu."

The request would be comical if it weren't part of a broader campaign by China's poultry industry to pressure governments into withholding information about avian influenza outbreaks from the public, in hope of fooling people into thinking that poultry isn't the means by which the disease is spread.

According to a separate Feb. 4 Xinhua report, China's national poultry association, in collaboration with poultry associations in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces (Guangxi is also a major site of bird flu cases), recently sent an open letter to "governments at all levels" calling upon them to "stop reporting individual cases" of bird flu. The poultry associations, the report noted, "have a close relationship with the poultry industry." Most disturbing, the call for silence on new cases seems to have been heard: "Guangdong media," Xinhua notes in the report, are no longer receiving regular reports of H7N9 bird flu infections from local Guangdong health authorities.

This is madness. Timely, accurate disclosure of avian influenza cases (of which there have been hundreds of confirmed cases in China since early 2013), including information on how those cases were transmitted, is a critical means of educating the Chinese public about the disease and how to avoid it. And teaching the public also includes disclosing the probable source of the disease: birds.

Of this, there is little doubt. The World Health Organization's website for H7N9 avian influenza, the type most prevalent in China at the moment, notes: "Avian influenza A (H7N9) is a subtype of influenza viruses that have been detected in birds in the past." Likewise, H10N8, the highly virulent strain of the disease first reported by Chinese scientists this week, also probably originated in wild birds, "infected poultry and then reassorted with H9N2 viruses in poultry to give rise to the novel reassortant JX346 (H10N8) virus," said Dr. Yuelong Shu of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Beijing -- and one of the authors of the study in the Lancet -- in a Feb. 4 press release.

Exposure to live poultry in China occurs in the country's many thousands of crowded, often unsanitary poultry markets (typically, the only source of fresh poultry outside of China's big cities) and is strongly correlated with infections with H7N9 bird flu. To deny all of this, either through changes in nomenclature or through nondisclosure, deprives the Chinese public of relevant information that can prevent individual cases and a potential pandemic.

It's quite possible, even likely, that local health authorities are continuing to report cases to local, national and global health authorities (presumably, there would be complaints from the World Health Organization if they didn't). But to keep this information from the public is not only morally questionable but also undermines many of the gains in trust -- from both its public and the global health community -- that Chinese health authorities earned after SARS. Indeed, it was only 11 years ago that coverups and nondisclosure of SARS infections turned what might have been a manageable, but still lethal, emerging disease outbreak, into a global health crisis that had a devastating impact on the Chinese economy.

Bird flu hasn't reached that stage, yet. But if China's self-interested poultry producers and their local government allies succeed in their campaign to roll back the reforms earned after SARS, they will have laid an easier path for the next pandemic. Let's hope sanity, science and China's central government don't allow that to happen.

(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in the Shanghai and the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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