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, dispatching 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 that is a mainstay of Chinese households.
Anxious 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," housewife Zhang Minyu, 41, said as she coaxed her young son to order a soft-serve ice cream instead.
Roughly 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 deadly 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 announce the H7N9 virus outbreak publicly, public health experts have so far commended the government for responsiveness and transparency in the five days since officials identified the first victims. "It was the Ministry of Health and Family Planning that first came to us and volunteered the information," said Gregory Hartl, World Health Organization spokesman, in Geneva. "Their response has been excellent."
Health officials around the world are nervously monitoring the outbreak, which has killed nearly half of the 14 people in which the virus has been diagnosed. What they fear most is that the disease will mutate, so that it can spread from human to human, but there has yet to be a confirmed case of transmission between humans. But state media Friday reported that Shanghai officials had placed in quarantine a person with flu-like symptoms who had contact with a victim of H7N9.