A Bus Driver in Southern China Dies of Bird Flu. Could the Deadly Virus Strike Again?

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Workers dispose of dead chickens that were killed at a poultry market on Dec. 21, 2011, in Hong Kong

News that a bus driver from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen died of the H5N1 bird-flu virus on Dec. 31 was greeted with a shrug in the nation that serves as the breeding ground for some of the world’s nastiest viruses. The death of a 39-year-old bus driver surnamed Chen on Saturday was the first reported human death from bird flu in 18 months. The World Health Organization says that China has reported 27 avian-influenza fatalities since 2003, with around 40 infected in total — a sign of the virus’s high mortality rate. Worldwide, the virus, which is usually transmitted through direct handling of infected birds as opposed to human-to-human contact, has killed more than 330 people.

The death struck a nerve in Hong Kong, the international metropolis that is just across the border from the boomtown of Shenzhen and that has seen seven people die from bird flu in recent years. The former British colony has now reverted to Chinese rule but enjoys a separate political system and maintains strict health standards. In late December, Hong Kong officials reported that a pair of dead birds found in the territory had tested positive for H5N1. In addition, a chicken at a local market was also found to carry the virus and since then tens of thousands of poultry have been exterminated in Hong Kong. The territory’s scientists have been on the forefront of efforts to identify new virus strains that proliferate in China, particularly in the country’s southern Guangdong province bordering Hong Kong.

Bird flu has dominated the front pages of Hong Kong newspapers, with the respected South China Morning Post on Jan. 2 reporting critically on China’s disease-monitoring standards, quoting University of Hong Kong microbiologist Guan Yi: “For more than a decade, the virus was always found in birds in Hong Kong before any human fell ill. The situation is opposite on the mainland. Their approach seems to be to wait for someone to get sick and then guess where the virus came from. It’s unreasonable.”

Predictably, coverage in the mainland’s state-controlled press was less critical, focusing instead on the heroic efforts of provincial health officials in Guangdong, where Shenzhen is located, to identify the virus. On Dec. 22, Xinhua, China’s state-run news service, did mention the infected birds found in Hong Kong but noted that “no reports of a bird-flu outbreak have been filed on the mainland so far.” Yet just 10 days before, Xinhua had reported that “China’s Ministry of Agriculture on Monday confirmed an outbreak of bird flu at a village in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region.”

The quiet reaction in China to the Shenzhen death is not so surprising. Other outbreaks of disease have been far deadlier in recent months, including a viral hemorrhagic fever that killed at least 24 people in eastern Shandong province after they had direct or indirect contact with rats. At the same time, there are plenty of manmade health crises that have kept Chinese occupied, from pork laced with toxic clenbuterol to cooking oil that is fished out of gutters and rebottled for unsuspecting customers. Although widespread coverage of tainted food has sparked a consumer outcry in China, perhaps there’s not enough anxiety to go around to encompass a viral outbreak that has only resulted in one death so far.

Yet as the Chinese government’s shocking response to the SARS outbreak showed in 2003, natural health disasters can quickly morph into manmade ones. Back then, Chinese health officials lied about the severity of the outbreak and even hid patients from visiting international health inspectors. Since then, the Health Ministry says it has cleaned up its act, but not everyone is convinced that the government’s instinct to dissemble first and act later has changed that much. No wonder citizens over the border in Hong Kong are feeling so nervous about a lone bus driver’s untimely demise.

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