China death toll from bird flu soars to 79 in January: government

During China's worst H7N9 bird flu season, which started in October, the virus had infected 306 people and by the end of January had killed 100 in 16 provinces, including Guangdong, Jiangsu and Anhui.

"The peak of the epidemic seems to have passed, but smaller outbreaks may last into late April", said Ni Daxin, deputy director of emergency response for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention at a news conference held by the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

Authorities have warned against panic and urged precautions, but nevertheless the numbers triggered concern of a repeat of previous health crises, such as the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002. "With the death rate nearly catching up with SARS, shouldn't warnings be issued earlier?" said one user of popular microblog Sina Weibo. Since then, more than 900 confirmed cases have been reported.

The People's Daily, the official paper of the ruling Communist Party, warned people in a social media post to stay away from live poultry markets, saying it was "extremely clear" that poultry and their excrement were the cause of the infections.

China has seen an uptick of cases of H7N9.

Chinese chicken prices sank to their lowest levels in more than a decade on Wednesday.

Most people infected with H7N9 are believed to contract it by touching infected poultry or entering contaminated areas, according to a World Health Organization alert published last month.

But others believe the number of infections is higher.

That number far outpaces the January death tolls in recent years, which have ranged between 20 and 31 people, and has skyrocketed since two deaths and seven infections alarmed the country back in December.

Mr Ni called for strengthening measures to control the virus, in particular shutting down additional live poultry markets.

H7N9, a subtype of influenza that affects both birds and humans, was first discovered in China in 2013. The patient is a 68-year-old man from Langfang city in neighbouring Hebei province.

The virus spreads to humans through exposure to infected birds or contaminated environments like poultry markets. Five people in the province have died as a result of the virus this year.

  • Joanne Flowers