, BEIJING, Dec 31 – China has reported its first human case of bird flu in 18 months, after a bus driver in the massive southern boomtown of Shenzhen tested positive for the deadly virus.
The city borders Hong Kong, which has already culled thousands of chickens and ordered a suspension of live poultry imports from the mainland after three birds tested positive with the H5N1 strain of the virus in mid-December.
The man, surnamed Chen, developed a fever on December 21 and was taken to hospital on December 25 and diagnosed with severe pneumonia, said the health department in Shenzhen, a city of more than 10 million.
The 39-year-old later tested positive for the H5N1 avian influenza virus, the department said in a statement posted online late Friday.
He was in critical condition and receiving emergency treatment. Authorities said the man had apparently had no direct contact with poultry in the month before he was taken ill nor had he left the city.
The H5N1 virus is fatal in humans in about 60 percent of cases. There tends to be a spike in infections during the early months of the year. Symptoms include fever, coughing, a sore throat, pneumonia and respiratory disease.
However, it does not pass easily from human to human, and the World Health Organization says it has never identified a “sustained human-to-human spread” of the virus since it re-emerged in 2003.
Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have been working closely together since December 21 after live poultry supplies were suspended to the glitzy financial hub following the discovery of infected birds.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong health department said in a statement authorities would heighten their vigilance “and continue to maintain stringent port health measures in connection with this development.”
Health authorities in China have also vowed to stay in “close contact and work together” with Hong Kong and “jointly step up measures in controlling the epidemic”, the official Xinhua news agency said.
China is considered one of the nations most at risk of bird flu epidemics because it has the world’s biggest poultry population and many chickens in rural areas are kept close to humans.
In the last reported human case in China, a young pregnant woman died of bird flu in June 2010 in the central province of Hubei.
Her death brought to 26 the number of people who have died in China since 2003, out of 40 reported human cases, according to the World Health Organization.
Authorities in Hong Kong have raised the bird flu alert level to “serious” since they discovered infected chickens, resulting in major disruptions to poultry supplies over the busy Christmas period.
Two schools were ordered to close after dead birds infected with the virus were found on their premises.
Hong Kong was the site of the world’s first major outbreak of bird flu among humans in 1997, when six people died. Millions of birds were then culled.
The avian influenza virus has killed more than 330 people around the world, with Indonesia the worst-hit country. Most human infections are the result of direct contact with infected birds.
Scientists fear H5N1 could mutate into a form readily transmissible between humans, with the potential to cause millions of deaths.
Highlighting those fears, the World Health Organization said on Friday it was “deeply concerned” about research into whether H5N1 could be made more transmissible between humans after mutant strains were produced in labs.
Two separate research teams — one in the Netherlands and the other in the United States — separately found ways to alter the virus H5N1 so it could pass easily between mammals.
Hong Kong is particularly nervous about infectious diseases after an outbreak of the respiratory disease SARS in 2003 killed 300 people in the city and a further 500 worldwide.
A 59-year-old woman tested positive for bird flu in 2010 in Hong Kong’s first human case of the illness since 2003.