Skip

Bye Bye Birdie
June 5, 2005 2:19 AM   Subscribe

Over the past month, people in Qinghai province, China have been reporting that migratory birds in the mostly-rural region were dropping dead of an unknown disease, later diagnosed as a few hundred cases of "an isolated case" [sic] of influenza strain H5N1, a.k.a. bird flu. Three weeks later, the Chinese government admitted that actually about a thousand birds had died of bird flu in the province. Now there are reports saying that at least 8,000 animals--not just birds--have died from the flu, including not only breeds of fowl not previously known to be affected by the virus, but non-avian species, too.

Every national park and bird sanctuary in China has been closed for weeks, since the first reports surfaced of an outbreak. But today, disturbing photos started appearing on Chinese language news websites, supposedly taken at the closed Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve. They appear to show thousands of dead birds (warning, disturbing images - Engrish version via Babelfish here) on the island in the middle of Qinghai Lake, China's largest saltwater lake and a rest-stop for migratory birds from all across southeast Asia. Nervous pandemic-watchers are debating whether the photos are real or doctored, but compared to previous photos of the once-lively birding spot, something definitely seems to be wrong.
[ much more inside >> ]
posted by Asparagirl (42 comments total)

 
Meanwhile, a news blackout and at least a partial physical quarantine have been implemented in Qinghai amid more unconfirmed reports that 121 people in the region have died of what China denies is bird flu, deaths which may only have come to light in the first place because a few tourists were among the dead. The past seven days have seen China issuing ridiculous and seemingly panicky press releases and state propaganda pieces, one after another: first announcing that they've miraculously invented a H5N1 vaccine, without providing any details on how they overcame the many obstacles facing every other researcher that has tried thus far; then talking about an fabulous early warning system for bird flu they're developing; and yesterday sending out a mailing to the scientific community actually claiming that "In response to the recent avian influenza outbreak in Qinghai province, the chief veterinarian says the birds killed came from south and central Asia, so other parts of China should not be affected."

While the reports of human deaths remain unconfirmed, and mainly come from a website with a possible axe to grind towards the Chinese government (and do note that Qinghai province includes part of Tibet, no fans of China either), the website was the same one that broke the story of China's deadly SARS epidemic cover-up in 2003. China is also known to be currently covering-up at least one other epidemic, that of foot and mouth disease. And only after the bird flu strain recently seen in Thailand and Vietnam was, using genetic reverse engineering, traced back to a Chinese origin, did Chinese scientists finally admit to China being the likely genesis point and publish their data. Or, as even the notoriously slow-moving WHO put it yesterday, even though they met with Chinese health officials last week, "The World Health Organization says it has no reason to believe the Chinese authorities' denial of human cases of bird flu."
posted by Asparagirl at 2:24 AM on June 5, 2005


excellent work, asparagirl.

as most of us are aware, it's only a matter of time until bird flu explodes into the human ecosystem and hands us a messy pandemic. is now that time?
posted by mek at 2:28 AM on June 5, 2005


Thank god Dr. Thomas Butler is in prison!
posted by orthogonality at 2:45 AM on June 5, 2005


[this is good scary]
posted by schyler523 at 3:46 AM on June 5, 2005


mek writes " as most of us are aware, it's only a matter of time until bird flu explodes into the human ecosystem and hands us a messy pandemic. is now that time?"

I bloody well hope not, I'm going to China in September. I really don't want to be the guy that brings some hyper virulent version of H5N1 back to Blighty. And I'm not altogether keen on dying either. Not keen at all.
Good post. Scary, but good.
posted by chill at 4:16 AM on June 5, 2005


I nominate Chicken Little as the official mascot of the 'bird flu pandemic media mind control constant fear meme' (®).

His catch phrase can be: "The flu is spreading, the flu is spreading!"

It's gotta be better than being afraid of the horrific things that are really going on...
posted by fairmettle at 4:16 AM on June 5, 2005


BTW, point of interest, that excellent EPIDEMIca site is courtesy of Mefite docgonzo.
posted by chill at 4:21 AM on June 5, 2005


This is the most indecisive deadly virus EVER! Since last fall, we've been told that it's going to kill everyone. Well, what is it waiting for? If this outbreak is going to be so cataclysmic, why hasn't it done anything interesting in the span of a school year? I thought part of the terror was the speed at which viruses travel.

While there's always an obvious theoretical danger posed by microscopic germs, these repeated warnings about an outbreak that will perpetually start next week sometime are pure alarmism. Propogated by some people who want to spread Sinophobia for political reasons.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:54 AM on June 5, 2005


PandemicFilter! Now with 80% more panic!
posted by graymouser at 4:59 AM on June 5, 2005


Mayor Curley writes "Propogated by some people who want to spread Sinophobia for political reasons."

Which people do you have in mind?
posted by chill at 5:11 AM on June 5, 2005


I sin and I'm glad...glad I tell you!

But seriously, this is a very well put-together post thanks asparagirl.

In addition to the obvious birdflu infections the events speak to the ongoing problems with timely, factual, open and engaged operations and communications from the Chinese scientific 'authorities'. The 'cry-wolf' syndrome mayorcurley seems to complain about wouldn't be so sensationalized perhaps if the Chinese government weren't hiding every godamn thing and only releasing true information when evidence was shoved down their throats. Am I criticizing Chinese politics in science? Fuckin' A.
And what schyler523 said.
posted by peacay at 5:36 AM on June 5, 2005


*sneezes*

sorry!

posted by matteo at 6:12 AM on June 5, 2005


I refuse to care until someone famous dies. Preferably if televised.
posted by Kattullus at 6:25 AM on June 5, 2005


In addition to the obvious birdflu infections the events speak to the ongoing problems with timely, factual, open and engaged operations and communications from the Chinese scientific 'authorities'. The 'cry-wolf' syndrome mayorcurley seems to complain about wouldn't be so sensationalized perhaps if the Chinese government weren't hiding every godamn thing and only releasing true information when evidence was shoved down their throats. Am I criticizing Chinese politics in science? Fuckin' A.
And what schyler523 said.
posted by peacay at 5:36 AM PST on June 5 [!]


Interesting post, but you misspelled the word "American" three times! -- It's spelled a-m-e-r-i-c-a-n -- not c-h-i-n-e-s-e -- perhaps you could take advantage of this site's Spell Check feature next time...
posted by fairmettle at 6:27 AM on June 5, 2005


Really nice post, asparagirl.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:29 AM on June 5, 2005


This is quite timely -- and by timely I mean scary. I'm just reading The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, and what you write here is quite similar to the book's description of the political climate/denial/cover-up in this country at the time of the 1918-19 pandemic. In addition to providing an incredibly sweeping overview of the outbreak, the author also makes the point that we are due for another encounter with H5N1 on a massive scale. I'm both surprised and not surprised that we're not hearing that much about this news from China.

Excellent post.
posted by youarejustalittleant at 6:41 AM on June 5, 2005


thanks for the thorough & scary update, asparagirl!
posted by madamjujujive at 6:48 AM on June 5, 2005


Great post. However, the talk about a coverup I think is a little premature. The fact that I read about 300 geese dying in the same preserve in the People's Daily back in the 2nd week of May tells me that info is getting out even through official channels. Just because there aren't numerous TV channels of talking heads whipping the entire country into a panic doesn't mean folks in China aren't aware of the issue. IMO I believe the Chinese govt had their noses rubbed in the SARS coverup and don't want to repeat a similar fiasco.

Now, with that said, what the local govt officials do in the provinces is a completely different ball of wax. No local official wants to take responsibility for being ground zero for a pandemic so it's no surprise officials Qinghai are attempting to control the flow of info.
posted by photoslob at 8:38 AM on June 5, 2005


fairmettle writes "but you misspelled the word 'American' three times!"
Well, it's a separate cause you're alluding to of course.

photoslob writes "IMO I believe the Chinese govt had their noses rubbed in the SARS coverup and don't want to repeat a similar fiasco. " AND "No local official wants to take responsibility for being ground zero for a pandemic so it's no surprise officials Qinghai are attempting to control the flow of info."

That would be somewhat contradictory perhaps?. Have a read.

posted by peacay at 8:48 AM on June 5, 2005


So, are we outraged about the flu, or about a conspiracy? I can't follow along, could someone fax me the talking point?
posted by odinsdream at 8:54 AM on June 5, 2005


Chart 1 looks by far, a piece of bird birds and beasts' hell, the everywhere death bird, airborne nearly cannot see the soaring bird

OH NOES!!1!1!#!

Immaturity aside, though, excellent post and actually quite alarming even without the poor quality of translation from Chinese to English (or Engrish).
posted by thatweirdguy2 at 9:06 AM on June 5, 2005


Chart 1 looks by far, a piece of bird birds and beasts' hell, the everywhere death bird, airborne nearly cannot see the soaring bird

OH NOES!!1!1!#!


I'll take my end of the world pandemics in poetry any day, personally.
posted by jokeefe at 10:13 AM on June 5, 2005


Engrish version...

Gratuitous.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:26 AM on June 5, 2005


They appear to show thousands of dead birds (warning, disturbing images - Engrish version via Babelfish here) on the island in the middle of Qinghai Lake, China's largest saltwater lake and a rest-stop for migratory birds from all across southeast Asia.

Or those pictures show a pretty normal nesting colony. The quality is terrible but all I see is a lot of roosting birds: none belly up. Earlier in the year there'd be more activity because the birds would still be arriving and mating so not a fair comparison. Besides mass bird kills are hardly unheard of for reasons other than the coming apocalypse.
posted by fshgrl at 11:10 AM on June 5, 2005


Peacay - it's not at all unbelievable that the central govt in Beijing would be saying something the folks in Qinghai would deny or vice versa. I know this is painting with a very broad brush but China is a country of contradictions.

One more thing, I'm not doubting the New Scientist piece but some attempt at attribution on WHO or WHAT in China is denying an outbreak would be nice. It's becoming a pet peeve of mine that nothing seems to be attributed to an actual source anymore.

Anyway, I traveled throughout China in the month of May and I can confidently say the Chinese public and media are all over the H5N1 story. I will say that the story on foot and mouth seems to be getting very little play over there for some reason. Either way, the Chinese folks I came into contact with didn't seem too concerned.
posted by photoslob at 11:52 AM on June 5, 2005


This is the most indecisive deadly virus EVER! Since last fall, we've been told that it's going to kill everyone. Well, what is it waiting for? If this outbreak is going to be so cataclysmic, why hasn't it done anything interesting in the span of a school year? I thought part of the terror was the speed at which viruses travel.

While there's always an obvious theoretical danger posed by microscopic germs, these repeated warnings about an outbreak that will perpetually start next week sometime are pure alarmism.


The problem with that attitude is that we are talking about the possible beginnings of an outbreak, not the actual pandemic itself. We are seeing a zoonotic disease that has the potential to be really deadly and to spread quickly, but that hasn't achieved critical mass to do so. Look at other pandemics and their origins, and you will see a VERY similar early origin for them (like someone pointed out earlier). Just because it hasn't yet "done anything interesting" doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned about it. We are seeing the very early signs of something, and have the luxury of time to try to deal with it. I personally prefer scientists focusing on this now, so we don't have something like the Spanish flu catching us unaware in a few years.

Propogated by some people who want to spread Sinophobia for political reasons.

I have to wonder where this is coming from? It's not just the websites in Asparagirl's excellent post that are focusing on this issue. The WHO is warning about this too, and they are certainly not known for spreading Sinophobia (just ask Taiwan, who didn't get any help for weeks from the WHO during their SARS outbreak because of pressure from China...)
posted by gemmy at 12:35 PM on June 5, 2005


The problem with that attitude is that we are talking about the possible beginnings of an outbreak, not the actual pandemic itself.

Ah, PandemicFilter...this is the ninth post in under a year about how bird flu will kill us all. This was actually one of the more interesting ones, in that it seems to be about H5N1 spreading among birds, but the fact is that we don't know anything about human transmission of the virus that we didn't know before except for some alleged yet-unexplained deaths.

Cautiousness and skepticism are good things in following H5N1...people seem less Chicken Little about it now, if nothing else.
posted by graymouser at 1:50 PM on June 5, 2005


I've been following the Qinghai outbreak on my blog on infectious diseases (epidemi.ca) for about a fortnight. Asparagirl's intro is spot-on; except for the Devil's Advocacy I'm going to now engage in:

There is nothing in the boxun.com posts that answers the central question: Are these posts reports of an emerging pandemic or are they planted items of misinformation to embarass or destabilise the Chinese regime? Just as it would be entirely in character -- and according to precedent -- for the CCP to be attempting to coverup this outbreak, so too would it be in character for foreign parties to use boxun.com in a sophisticated campaign to discredit the CCP.

Anyhoo, I have just posted three (human) translations of boxun.com posts from a translator that contacted me through my ask.mefi post. They're up now.
posted by docgonzo at 1:50 PM on June 5, 2005


Oops. Just realised asparagirl linked to my site. Sorry for the redundacy.
posted by docgonzo at 1:51 PM on June 5, 2005


Oy vey, this means we can't use chicken soup as a cure.
posted by zaelic at 2:00 PM on June 5, 2005


Excellent post Asparagirl. I'll have to take some time out and read all these links carefully. And I'll certainly have to check out your site, docgonzo, it sounds interesting, even though Ihave less then a layman's knowledge on infectious diseases.
posted by Snyder at 2:21 PM on June 5, 2005


don't worry, snyder; I write for laypeople, not epidemiologists...
posted by docgonzo at 3:05 PM on June 5, 2005


Don't get too carried away, as fshgrl pointed out, those pictures look like a fairly normal nesting colony. Blurry as hell, but not graphic, disturbing or even unusual.
posted by Joeforking at 3:14 PM on June 5, 2005


Saw a dead bird earlier today.
posted by delmoi at 3:39 PM on June 5, 2005


BTW, the bird flu won't kill us all, only the elderly and children! So relax.
posted by mek at 5:18 PM on June 5, 2005


Mek: Sure, just like the 1918 epidemic that left my grandparents as orphans!
posted by SpecialK at 5:53 PM on June 5, 2005


Mek: That's a pretty ignorant comment. As I pointed out in a previous PandemicFilter thread, these pandemics are not like a "normal" flu. In 1918, there was a high mortality rate among 20-29 year olds. In some areas, 20-29 year olds were as likely to die as young kids or old people.
posted by Justinian at 9:37 PM on June 5, 2005


I'm willing to believe that the Chinese government is covering this up and suppressing stories, but it's also worth remembering that boxun.com has its own agenda; they've run some pretty virulently anti-PRC pieces in the past.
posted by bokane at 12:13 AM on June 6, 2005


Cautiousness and skepticism are good things in following H5N1

Good advice, infectious disease is just a scientific theory , every time a kid gets vaccinated he should get a Band-Aid that says "Viral transmission is just a theory, it should be viewed with an open and skeptical mind"...

Kidding aside, Even if there is bird to human transmission in Qinghai, it doesn't seem like there has been a lot of human to human transmission or else it would have spread to a lot more people. Qinghai isn't your classic breading ground for the flu anyway. Very sparsely populated and I doubt There is a large amount of contact between human's and the wild bird population (I could be wrong).

But great post anyway, you can't trust the chinese or american governments to prepare properly for an outbreak so it's best to keep up on the news.
posted by afu at 12:31 AM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]


SpecialK/Justinian: Well, that's depressing.

afu: the reasons you list are contributing factors to why we haven't seen a pandemic yet, certainly. but they also don't rule the possibility out. The more bird to human transmission that occurs, the more likely a variant of H5N1 that is particularly good at human to human transmission will be caught by a human... and the more densely populated the region (or the more well-travelled the original carrier is) the more transmission occurs, and ta-da, the pandemic begins.

A confluence of random factors is required, and this is why quarantines can effectively delay the pandemic. China has it easy, as they have very little population drift, and thus quarantine is very effective. In the States, or worse, Western Europe, it would be a different story. Fortunately for us the bird flu popped up in China and thus we have a lot of time to work on a vaccine.
posted by mek at 3:20 AM on June 6, 2005


Good advice, infectious disease is just a scientific theory , every time a kid gets vaccinated he should get a Band-Aid that says "Viral transmission is just a theory, it should be viewed with an open and skeptical mind"...

Heh. I actually meant - cautiousness because it could be a problem and skepticism because there are alarmist elements in the coverage.

boxun.com - as a Chinese dissident news site - is an alarming source but not necessarily a trustworthy one. This is worth watching but not worth panicking over.
posted by graymouser at 3:25 AM on June 6, 2005


We live in a time of so many warnings that people are desensitized, even to the ones they should not ignore. So it may be with H5N1. This earlier Epicemica article called it "Slouching towards Apocolypse". I doubt that you would be called a "fear mongerer" if you called out to someone in the street that they were about to be hit by an oncoming car. H5N1 just isn't as obvious (or moving that fast) so people can currently ignore it and call you names.

And greymouser, what you say about boxun.com may be true, but according to this story, "A Chinese-language website called Boxun News and an internet medical alert system called pro-MED report that 200 people have been infected, of whom 121 died. The two sites first alerted the world to the Sars outbreak in 2003 when the Chinese authorities denied it."

I haven't decided whether the Recombinetics guy is a reliable source of opinion on this matter. He seems to have the education/background, but the inferences he draws tend toward the most alarmist (perhaps rightfully so?)

In other news: h5n1 now has its own del.icio.us tag, and it may be a good time to buy Sharp stock.
posted by spock at 9:46 AM on June 14, 2005


« Older The Easy Diet   |   A taste of Internet Explorer v7? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post