A dispute between China and the authors of a paper on bird flu centers on the name of the strain identified, not its existence, scientists said on Friday, adding China´s vaccination programs were not to blame for the strain´s emergence.
China had rejected findings in a paper published in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that a vaccine-resistant strain of H5N1 bird flu the paper´s authors called the "Fujian-like virus" was circulating in the country.
But officials from the World Health Organization indicated that China does accept its existence, but takes issue with its being named after its southern province as well as other details in the paper on the circumstances of its evolution.
"It´s very important that naming of viruses is done in a way that doesn´t stigmatize countries, that doesn´t stigmatize regions and doesn´t stigmatize individual people," David Heymann, the WHO´s assistant director-general for communicable diseases, told a news conference on Friday.
He made the comments following four days of meetings in Beijing that included scientists from China´s health and agriculture ministries, the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
"The first thing this group identified was the need for standardized international naming for influenza viruses," he said.
With the world´s largest poultry population and millions of chickens and ducks roaming free in backyards, China is seen as a key to the fight against the H5N1 bird flu virus, which scientists fear could mutate into a form that can be passed easily between humans.
China has been criticized for hampering scientists´ ability to understand how bird flu is changing by not sharing virus samples, but in a breakthrough last month, the government agreed to provide samples to the World Health Organization.
"There was also widespread agreement that sharing information and sharing viruses is critical for the defense of everybody," Keiji Fukuda, coordinator of the WHO´s global influenza program, said of the meeting.
The WHO and FAO scientists also indicated they disagreed with some of the bird flu paper´s findings that the strain in question was vaccine-resistant and had started a wave of outbreaks across Southeast Asia.
The strain had been identified in southern China, Malaysia and Laos, but it was unclear how widespread it was outside of those areas, Fukuda said.
China´s Ministry of Agriculture was also stepping up its bird flu surveillance, with monthly, rather than annual, reporting, said Henk Bekedam, the WHO´s China representative.
But the strength of its vaccination and surveillance programs will be put to the test during the winter months, which traditionally have seen a surge in outbreaks.
China has not reported a human case of bird flu for the last five months and last reported poultry outbreaks in October, but Bekedam said there were still gaps in vaccination levels among smaller farms in the country´s vast hinterland.