Bird flu: the ongoing story

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(I wrote this blog post for Nature’s bird flu coverage from Shanghai, China, after a sobering trip to a local market. Thanks to my guide, stem cell researcher Hui Zhen Sheng, I was able to see things tourists are not normally privy to. You can read the post in its context here.)

To test whether a chicken is healthy, the vendors hold it upside down and check its rear for pinkness. Credit: Marc Lipsitch

It all begins in Asia. That’s the recurring theme in the countless stories that, probably like you, I’ve been reading the past few months. But none of it really hit home till last week when I was in China, where I got to see people and poultry mingling uncomfortably close.

At one street market in Shanghai, a few blocks west of the city’s famed Yuyuan Gardens, vendors piled plucked chickens next to stalls of vegetables, fruit and fried insects. The sheer volume of unidentifiable creatures and creature-parts was bizarre enough. But truly frightening was how the vendors handled the birds.

To test whether a chicken is healthy, the vendors hold it upside down and check its rear for pinkness. And to do that, they have to remove any debris out of the way. Most of the time, that just means blowing on the area – and that, of course, sends whatever is on the chicken’s rear end flying in all directions. “It’s basically a great way to aerosolize a fecally transmitted virus,” says Marc Lipsitch, with the departments of epidemiology and immunology & infectious diseases, at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Lipsitch, who had gone to a similar (perhaps the same) market a couple of days earlier, was a bit braver than I was and got close enough to take pictures. On the plus side, he says, the vendors seemed to be wetting the birds before plucking them, and killing them before slitting their necks – actions that prevent the feathers and blood from scattering everywhere and hopefully limit virus transmission.

Washing birds might help to limit the transmission of any viruses. Credit: Marc Lipsitch

There have been recent reports that the Chinese government is regulating the sale of chickens. And at one market I went to, there were no chickens in sight. But when the Chinese person I was with began inquiring about chickens, one vendor quickly pulled one out from underneath the table-and just as quickly put it back, yelling at us, when she spotted the camera in my hand.

Educating not just these vendors, but everyone who handles chickens, is a monumental task. Just the number of non-commercial backyard chickens in china has been estimated by some to be a staggering 10 billion. And that provides far too many chances to do things the wrong way.

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