TENGJIAYING, China (AP) ­- Chickens were dropping dead by the dozens at Qin Zhijun’s farm one morning, most while feeding in their squat, brick coops.

“They died instantly,” said Qin, a breeder in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region, which reported the first of the country’s three bird flu epidemics in poultry last month. “I’ve never seen a disease like this.”

Within 15 hours of the Oct. 14 outbreak, he says, up to 2,000 of his birds had died of the H5N1 virus and 7,000 others were destroyed by health officials.

The prevention measures extended for a two-mile radius from Qin’s farm, with more than 93,000 birds slaughtered and tens of thousands more vaccinated.

Now authorities are eager to assure the public and the world that the government is taking its anti-bird flu work very seriously – and to show it can be open following sharp criticism that it was unwilling to share information during an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in China in late 2002.

No human cases of bird flu have been reported in China, but two recent outbreaks in poultry – one in Anhui province in the east, the other in central Hunan province – have sparked fears that human infections may be on the horizon.

China on Thursday reported another outbreak, saying 8,940 chickens in Badaohao village in the country’s northeast died, prompting authorities to destroy 369,900 other birds. The Agriculture Ministry blamed the Oct. 26 outbreak on the H5 strain, which is separate from the H5N1 strain that poses a threat to humans.

Reporters dressed in protective suits and masks were taken on a whirlwind tour Thursday of Tengjiaying, a village of about 1,000 people just outside Hohhot, the regional capital. Cows and sheep roamed the dusty streets.

Buses carrying the group were stopped at a checkpoint, where the wheels of the vehicles were sprayed with disinfectant by workers wearing white and blue protective suits. A thick registration book sat on a table filled with information on drivers and their cargo.

“From the officials at the top to ordinary citizens, everyone understands this is a problem and everyone is paying great attention to it,” said Xu Yanhui, the official in charge of anti-bird flu measures in Inner Mongolia. “Everyone is filled with confidence that we will be able to overcome this.”

Qin, 44, said that on the day of the outbreak, he awoke at 6 a.m. to find a few dead birds. He said many more dropped dead while eating an hour later.

Qin said authorities, who arrived 30 minutes after he reported the deaths, detained him and his wife at the farm while they tested the chickens. He said that when the results came back positive for bird flu, they began destroying other chickens.

On Thursday, Qin’s coops stood empty, their windows sealed with plastic. The ground is covered in chalky white powdered disinfectant; empty bottles for liquid disinfectant were piled up nearby.

“At the time, it was hard to bear,” said Qin, whose face was browned by the sun and deeply lined. “I did not feel like eating, I did not feel like sleeping.”

He said authorities filled a pond where they suspect migrating birds might have passed the virus to his flock.

Of the 62 people who have died of bird flu in Asia since 2003, most have been linked to close contact with infected birds, but experts fear the H5N1 virus devastating flocks in Asia and pockets of eastern Europe could mutate into a form easily spread from person to person, and have called for increased prevention worldwide.

In China, where animals and people often live in close proximity, authorities have destroyed tens of thousands of birds in an effort to contain the virus and banned poultry imports from 14 countries with bird flu outbreaks. The leadership has also called for tighter monitoring and more aggressive vaccine research.

Xu showed a videotape of health workers plucking chickens from cages and stuffing them into bags before burning them in a huge bonfire. Workers were also shown spraying disinfectant onto buildings and speaking to villagers about bird flu.

“From the last three outbreaks (of bird flu), we think China has responded very appropriately and very strongly,” said Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization representative in Beijing. “What we have seen is an enormous political commitment.”

Noureddin Mona, the Beijing-based representative for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said China was employing “the right strategy.”

“The government is now disclosing information and building a kind of confidence with the public, and they already have learned many lessons from the previous nightmare of SARS,” Mona said.

At the Huaneng Chicken Farm, about four miles from Qin’s spread, manager Zhang Li said the 50 employees have been barred from leaving to prevent them from bringing in the virus. The farm is disinfected every 12 hours and its 91,800 chickens and 20,000 chicks have been vaccinated, Zhang said.

“Our measures are OK for now,” Li said. “But the risk is still high.”

Qin estimates he’s lost thousands of dollars – a fortune in a country where the average rural income is just over $300 a year. But he will eventually go back to rearing chickens.

“What else is there?” he said. “It’s all I know how to do.”


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