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China's bird flu mystery

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

This week, millions of Chinese visited family cemetery plots for the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival. They left or burned objects they thought their deceased ancestors could use in the afterlife, including chickens, pigeons and other food delicacies. Mao Zedong banned tomb sweeping because he thought it a decadent symbol of China’s Confucian past. But this year, China’s Communist Party had a different concern for tomb sweepers: Don’t handle live birds for your ancestors, or you just might be joining them in the afterlife.

It’s bird flu.

The emergence of the H7N9 avian influenza, mutated into a humanly infectious form, would be cause for concern even if it were a one-off event in a remote Chinese farm village. After all, this class of flu virus has never before infected, sickened or killed human beings – it’s a bona fide bird flu. But the disease drama now is unfolding in five large eastern China cities with a combined population of 48 million. This is a decidedly urban flu, its human victims identified to date span from ages 4 years to 87, and for most of the cases there is no obvious explanation for how they contracted their infections, or why their loved ones, co-workers and neighbors apparently did not.

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