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China has seen a spate of human deaths from bird flu that sparked warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as tens of millions throng airport, train and bus terminals to gather for Lunar New Year celebrations marking the Year of the Rooster.
On Thursday, the Hunan province in central China reported its 17th human case of bird flu this year. The patient had contact with infected poultry before, although his human contacts have not shown flu symptoms, state media reported. The link to poultry is particularly of interest now as dishes from fowl are often a major part of the holiday dining with friends and family.
This came just as the CDC on Thursday issued a low level travel advisory on travel to China. While there are no recommendations against travel to China, the health authority is advising travelers to the country not to touch birds and eat food that is fully cooked.
The spread of bird flu comes at an inopportune time for Asia widely with countries in the region that are home to large populations celebrate the festival. Countries like South Korea and Vietnam also see mass travel, though not on the scale of China with the annual week-long break described as the largest movement of people in a narrow window. The holiday in China runs from Friday through Feb. 2, or Thursday next week.
Nearly 40 countries—including some in Europe—have reported new outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza of various strains in poultry or wild birds since November, according to the WHO.
"The rapidly expanding geographical distribution of these outbreaks and the number of virus strains currently co-circulating have put WHO on high alert," director-general Margaret Chan told the start of the U.N. agency's executive board in Geneva on Monday, Reuters reported.
Although bird flu strains typically infect poultry, fears are that the flu virus—which is prone to mutation—will change to one that can be transmitted to humans and become a potentially fatal strain that is transmissible among humans, causing a pandemic.
There are nine bird flu fatalities in China this year alone, worrying public health officials.
As consumption of poultry rises in the festive season, human contact with live poultry in farms and markets will also rise, adding to the risk of flu transmission.
The WHO on Monday called on all countries to be vigilant in monitoring outbreaks of bird flu.
Although the world is better prepared for the next flu pandemic - following the H1N1 "mild" pandemic in 2009-2010 – it was"not at all well enough", WHO's Chan added.
The concerns follow a particularly serious bird flu season in South Korea that has sent over 30 million poultry—mostly hens—to the slaughterhouse so far. This has hit the country's daily 42 million egg output by a third, causing prices to spike, Yonhap News agency reported recently.
No human transmissions have been recorded in South Korea yet in current outbreak of a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu.
In Japan, 64 zoos that belong to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or about 72 percent, took measures to prevent the spread of bird flu, such as cancelling bird exhibits or events related to the new year, Kyodo News reported in late-December.
Japan does not celebrate the Lunar New Year officially and welcomed the Year of the Rooster on Jan. 1, though many tourists from China flock to the country for holidays.