Infectious Diseases 2004

Infectious Diseases 2004

Avian influenza data languish in Chinese journals

26 August, 2004

Potentially alarming findings on the avian influenza epidemic currently sweeping southeast Asia went largely unnoticed because they were published in Chinese-language journals, it emerged last week.
Chinese researchers reported this January that the strain of the avian influenza virus H5N1, had infected pigs. Yet neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was aware of the results when they were published. Last week both groups were hurriedly trying to get the papers translated.
The findings became widely known only when an author on the papers, virologist Chen Hualan of Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in northeast China, presented them at the International Symposium on the Prevention and Control of SARS and Avian Influenza in Beijing on 20 August. The results, which show that the virus was found in 2003 in pigs in southeast China, were originally published in January (L. I. Haiyan et al. Chin. J. Prev. Vet. Med. 26, 1-6; 2004). A second paper by Chen and her colleagues appeared in May, reporting similar results from pigs tested elsewhere in 2001 and 2003 (L. I. Haiyan et al. Chin. J. Vet. Sci. 24, 304-309; 2004).
The H5N1 strain, which can be fatal to humans, does not jump easily from birds to humans or between humans. But this might change if pigs are infected. Pigs are an "ideal mixing vessel", for influenza viruses.
The WHO and the FAO are now waiting to see a translation of the article and to hear from the Chinese agriculture ministry before deciding what steps to take. Until then, they urge caution and say that the significance of the findings cannot yet be judged.
China Thursday was cited as saying it found a deadly strain of bird flu in pigs as early as two years ago, long before a regional outbreak in poultry and humans.
National chief veterinary officer Jia Youling was cited as saying that Chinese scientists found the H5N1 virus in 2002 in a sample extracted from a pig the year before, adding, "One strain of virus was actually discovered in the year of 2002 from samples collected from enterprises by laboratories in 2001."
Yu Kangzhen, the agriculture ministry's head of veterinary services, was cited as telling the same press conference that another strain of H5N1 was discovered earlier this year in a sample drawn from a pig in 2003, but declined to say where in China the two pigs carrying the virus were located, citing the need to protect the interests of the local population.