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Fake Vaccines, Corruption May Doom China Efforts To Stop Bird Flu

by Antoaneta Bezlova

Concerns Over How China Would Handle Bird Flu Outbreak

(IPS) BEIJING -- As China prepares to undertake a massive drive to inoculate every chicken and duck in the country against avian flu, experts are cautioning there's not enough money or political will to accomplish this Herculean task.

Efforts to inoculate China's 14 billion farmed birds could be easily undermined by the use of substandard or fake vaccines and by lax local implementation -- two areas of grave concern for the central government, which has invested huge political capital into defeating the avian flu epidemic.

"It is not a problem of fiscal ability or determination on the side of the central government. It is an implementation problem," says Andy Rothman, China analyst with CLSA, the Shanghai-based brokerage.

Corrupt and inefficient local officials may thwart the central government's attempts to deal promptly and transparently with the spread of the disease, Rothman says. Failure by authorities to respond effectively to widespread outbreaks -- in birds or humans -- could lead to rural unrest, because poor farmers would be the first to feel the heat.

Beijing's ability to control the disease will also have global implications, as the more widespread it becomes in birds, the greater the chance of mutations that will make human-to-human infection easier.

China is the world's second-largest poultry producer -- a fact which, coupled with the country's location on the path of many migratory bird species, could make it a launching pad for global spread of the virus.

So far, this year in China, there have been 25 outbreaks in nine provinces, resulting in the culling of more than 21 million birds. The country, last week, confirmed its first two cases of avian flu in humans, prompting concerns that there could be more.

Avian flu also is suspected in a third case, in which a 12-year-old girl in the central province of Hunan died and was cremated before sufficient tests were carried out.

China's credibility in dealing with the spread of the disease has been undermined by a series of improper vaccination cases that health officials think have aided the spread of the virus.

Earlier this month, Chinese agriculture officials admitted that some of the outbreaks in the northeastern province of Liaoning were aided by the use of vaccines sold to farmers by a company not licensed to produce them.

Between May and June this year, the Inner Mongolia Biopharmaceutical factory, operated by the Jinyu Group, sold a vaccine to farmers, approved solely for testing, according to reports in the China Economic Times. Packages of the vaccine were distributed and sold not only in Liaoning but also in Henan, Gansu and other provinces, the paper reported.

In Liaoning alone, officials have reported four outbreaks of bird flu in recent weeks. According to the investigations by the China Economic Times, about 80 percent of the farmers in the affected areas have used the vaccine sold to them by the Jinyu Group.

Jia Youling, China's top veterinary official at the ministry of agriculture, said the harm caused is "incalculable." Speaking to the foreign media this week, he said the fight against fake or substandard vaccines would complicate the task of inoculating China's large bird flocks.

While illicit vaccines, like the ones sold by the Jinyu Group, leave poultry unprotected, substandard vaccines cause greater harm by masking the existence of the virus in birds that consequently become silent carriers.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said it supports China's decision to vaccinate all of its poultry birds, but cautioned that quality control on vaccines must be assured.

"The government has chosen to launch a massive vaccination campaign. We are supporting them, but we require a number of guarantees concerning these operations," FAO chief veterinary officer Joseph Domenech, was quoted by Reuters as saying in Rome.

This week, Beijing issued new rules to combat the avian flu, ordering local governments to report cases of the disease within four hours of discovery and threatening to punish local officials who provided late, deceptive or false reports.

The State Council, or China's cabinet, also announced a crackdown on vaccine producers manufacturing counterfeit and low-quality vaccines.

"China is a responsible, large country," said Cao Kangtai, director of the legislative office at the State Council. "We cannot let the disease spread outside the country."

China, which in 2003 was criticized for covering up an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, has won applause for acting aggressively to contain the spread of the deadly avian flu by culling millions of birds and seeking international cooperation.

But the biggest problem is that Beijing must rely on local officials -- many of whom lack reputation for dealing honestly and efficiently with rural people. Local corruption and abuse of power have long been dogging the implementation of a range of state policies, including birth control, land sales, resettlement and pollution.

At October's Chinese Communist Party plenum, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao renewed their pledge to tackle rural poverty and the growing gap between the developed east coast and the inland regions.

China has 50 million rural households that raise most of the country's chickens. Of the 592 counties designated by the government as in "extreme poverty," 88 percent are in western and central China -- the regions that so far have been affected most by the widespread outbreak of avian flu.

If avian flu spreads widely in humans, poor farmers and the rest of the country's 800 million rural citizens will be the first to fall ill and will have to contend with a weak and expensive rural health-care system.

"The Communist Party's ability to control the spread of avian flu has emerged as the first test of party chief Hu Jintao's pledge to put poor people first," said Rothman. "Should Beijing fail, the social and political cost for the leadership would outweigh the economic impact on the country."

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2005 (

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