China’s appetite for fresh chicken is making its bird flu epidemic worse

Can’t stop eating.
Can’t stop eating.
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Yu
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China has seen an alarming number of bird flu cases so far this year.

In January alone, the H7N9 avian flu virus has resulted in 79 deaths out of 192 reported cases in China, according to the country’s National Health and Planning Commission. It’s the worst bird-flu season since the virus first appeared in China in 2013. Altogether, 370 people in the mainland have died from the H7N9 strain.

H7N9, or avian influenza A, is a virus that infects both human and birds and manifests with flu-like symptoms. Most of the cases of human infections were linked to recent exposure to live poultry or contaminated environments like livestock markets.

It’s been especially difficult to control the outbreak because of the Lunar New Year holiday, according to China Youth Daily, a party-owned newspaper. Leading up to and during the new year, “people from both urban cities and rural areas will buy, feed, and slaughter chickens and ducks,” noted a Feb. 19 (link in Chinese) editorial. ”The habit of slaughtering has increased the risk of spreading the disease.”

China’s Center for Disease Control reported that the January outbreak was most prevalent in the south and on the eastern seaboard provinces, such as Guangdong and Jiangsu, where ”the local habits of buying live or freshly slaughtered chickens” have contributed to the outbreak, said Ni Daxin, deputy director of emergency response for the center. As a result, he is encouraging people to buy frozen chicken. “The nutritional value is equal to that of freshly slaughtered poultry, but it involves far fewer health risks,” he added.

Zhejiang province has shut down all live poultry markets since Feb. 11 (link in Chinese) as part of its efforts to contain the disease. Since 2014, Hong Kong has halted selling live chickens in local wet markets several times when H7N9 was found on imported poultry from the mainland.