Caribbean Flu Scare was Accidentally Made in China

What's in a name paired with a couple of numbers and letters? A great deal, it turns out, when those letters and numbers refer to a strain of the influenza (flu) virus. While it's not critical to be able to tell your hemagglutinin from your neuraminidase (the two proteins at the source of the “H” and “N” flu naming conventions), as the National Pork Board states in its influenza naming guidelines (PDF): “Knowing the proper name to call a flu virus is important to be factual and to avoid misinterpretation and improper response.”

Case in point: last week's bird/swine flu mix-up, which saw officials in Trinidad and Tobago pointing fingers at Venezuela in the wake of (baseless) bird flu concerns following a visit by an official delegation led by Chinese president Xi Jinping; and officials in Haiti imposing a ban on the importation of meat and poultry products from their neighbour, the Dominican Republic.

The likely source of the mix-up, according to Canadian novelist and blogger Crawford Kilian, was a Chinese-to-English mistranslation by Xinhua, China's official press agency.

The first clue, spotted by Kilian on June 6, 2013 and reported in a blog post entitled “H7N9 [avian or bird flu] in the Caribbean? Not likely”, was a report in the Trinidad Express Kilian described as “the least likely story since the outbreak [of avian flu] began.” The Express article centred on a “suspected” case of bird flu in Trinidad and Tobago, and reported that “questions were beginning to surface” as to why, given that “China is currently battling a bird flu pandemic”, members of the 153-person delegation that accompanied Chinese president Xi Jinping on an official visit to Trinidad last week were not tested for bird flu on entering the country.

The article quoted Trinidad and Tobago's Minister of Health as saying that while there was no “outbreak” of bird flu in the country, Trinidad and Tobago was in fact susceptible because of its proximity to Venezuela.

“Where to begin?” wrote a nonplussed Kilian. “The idea that senior members of the Chinese government might be carrying H7N9 is simply ludicrous, unless we assume that President Xi and his colleagues also moonlight as chicken merchants. China is not “battling a bird flu pandemic.” The reported Chinese death and case numbers don't make sense. And whatever they have a lot of cases of in Venezuela, it's not H7N9 or H5N1 [strains of bird flu].”

Later that day Kilian reported having found the likely source of the misinformation: an article from China's official press agency, Xinhua, bearing the headline “Bird flu virus infects 724 people in Venezuela“. The Xinhua report makes reference to the “the A/H1N1″ bird flu virus”: H1N1, however, is swine flu, not bird flu. (Chinese-language Xinhua articles such as this May 28 report [zh] refer to the Venezuelan outbreak by its correct name and number).

The Florida-based Haiti Observer blog carried a similar error in a June 7 post about the ban imposed by the Haitian government on the importation of poultry and other meat products from the neighboring Dominican Republic, where, according to the article, a warning had been issued “regarding the reappearance of avian flu (H1N1 virus)” (emphasis added). The error was reproduced [fr] in the Haiti's French-language daily, Le Nouvelliste.

The Dominican Republic exports a reported 25 million eggs and 8 million chickens to Haiti each year. While there was in fact an outbreak of the H2N2 strain of avian flu in the Dominican Republic in 2008, Dominican officials have been adamant that the country is currently free of bird flu, stating that the country's five flu fatalities have been due to swine flu, which has no impact on the quality of local meat exports.

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