China to vaccinate poultry against H7N9 bird flu next month

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has decided to vaccinate poultry from next month against the H7N9 bird flu virus, after it claimed hundreds of lives last winter and caused major damage to the industry.

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The vaccination program will kick off in Guangdong and Guangxi in southern China in early July, said a notice from the agriculture ministry posted on the official WeChat account of the Chinese Veterinary Medical Association this week.

It targets all species including broiler chickens, ducks, geese and egg-laying hens.

Farms in other provinces will be allowed to opt for vaccination if approved by local veterinary authorities, it added, and emergency vaccination may be used to tackle outbreaks.

“In the near-term, it’s a good thing, it’s definitely a control measure,” said Li Jinghui, managing director, China Poultry Association.

H7N9 first emerged in China in 2013 but human cases spiked up last winter, claiming at least 268 lives since October, and mostly during the first few months of this year.

While the virus initially had little impact on birds, the high number of human cases led authorities to shut down live poultry markets around the country, hitting demand for eggs and the native yellow-feather chickens, commonly sold in such marketplaces.

The H7N9 strain has also evolved in some places into a more severe form, killing egg-laying hens and leading authorities to cull flocks in surrounding areas.

As farmers are still reeling from the plunge in their business, many had lobbied the government for a vaccine to protect their flocks. Others operating integrated farms that sell directly to slaughterhouses were not in favour of the plan however, said Li.

“In the long run, vaccination does not help the eradication of the disease,” he said.

Vaccines reduce clinical disease but do not prevent a virus from circulating and can mask its prevalence, say experts.

China is the world’s third-largest producer of broiler chickens and the second-biggest consumer of poultry.

In densely populated Guangdong, there were more than 300 human cases of H7N9 virus this winter, far more than any other province.

While acknowledging the debate around the use of vaccines, Vincent Martin, chief representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization in China, said China had taken the right step.

“It’s a tough decision. If you start, you may have to do it for some time, it could be several years, with a robust post-vaccination monitoring system in place, especially in a country like China with a huge poultry population,” he said.

He added that the decision to start the vaccination programs in July, six months ahead of the usual rise in cases, showed good timing and smart preparation by the country.

Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips