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Originally published Friday, April 5, 2013 at 10:00 PM

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China steps up response to deadly avian-flu outbreak

China’s H7N9 influenza outbreak is testing a government known for its lack of transparency and reluctance to divulge damaging news.

The New York Times

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BEIJING — With confirmation that a sixth person has died from a mysterious avian-borne virus, Chinese officials escalated their response Friday, advising people to avoid live poultry, sending virologists to chicken farms across the country and slaughtering more than 20,000 birds at a wholesale market in Shanghai where the virus, known as H7N9, was detected in a pigeon.

News of the outbreak dominated China’s main Internet portals. There were photographs of workers in white coveralls carrying out the culling in Shanghai and recommendations that people take banlangen, an herbal cold remedy.

Residents have been crowding emergency rooms at the first sign of respiratory problems. And at a KFC restaurant in Beijing, employees stood idle as mounds of fried chicken went largely unsold. “They say it’s OK to eat cooked chicken, but I’d rather not take the chance,” Zhang Minyu, 41, said as she coaxed her son to instead order soft-serve ice cream.

About 10 years after Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, began in China and spread across the globe, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing nearly 800, the influenza outbreak is testing a government known for its lack of transparency and reluctance to divulge damaging news.

The timing has not helped: The Chinese public has already been outraged by record-level air pollution this year and frustrated by the government’s apparent inability to determine the source or cause of deaths of more than 16,000 pigs found floating last month in the river that supplies drinking water for Shanghai.

Although some critics have questioned why it took so long for officials to publicly announce the outbreak of the H7N9 virus, public-health experts have commended the government for responsiveness and transparency in the five days since officials identified the first deaths. “It was the Ministry of Health and Family Planning that first came to us and volunteered the information,” said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Health officials around the world are monitoring the outbreak, which has killed nearly half of the 14 people in whom the virus has been diagnosed. What they fear most is the disease will mutate so it can spread from human to human.

Experts say the virus appears to respond to existing influenza medications.

John Oxford, a professor of virology at Queen Mary, University of London, warned of a potential pandemic should H7N9 undergo a mutation that allows human-to-human transmission. His worries were heightened, he said, by the relatively high fatality rate and the virus’ apparent spread through poultry without any evident signs of illness.

“If a flock of chickens or ducks get H5N1, it will kill them and set off alarm bells, but this virus seems to be a bit more tricky,” he said, referring to another avian virus that since 2003 has decimated poultry stocks in Southeast Asia and killed more than 300 people.

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