HONG KONG – China called bird flu a "serious epidemic" and pledged to step up measures to fight the deadly virus Tuesday as officials announced three new outbreaks of the disease in poultry in the country.
The outbreaks were detected last week in western and southern China, resulting in the killing of nearly 175,000 birds, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The latest outbreaks bring the total for China in recent weeks to 20.
The massive nation — where billions of poultry are being vaccinated — has reported one human fatality and one suspected death.
"The government is making all efforts to combat bird flu, which is a serious epidemic in China," Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters at a routine briefing.
Liu added that China was still "facing serious challenges" and that the country "will step up our efforts in order to resolve this bird flu issue."
Meanwhile, Japan joined Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States in temporarily halting poultry imports from the Canadian province of British Columbia, where officials said they found a duck infected with bird flu.
Canada has insisted the bird caught a North American strain of the disease that was less virulent than the virus that has decimated poultry stocks in Asia and killed at least 67 people since 2003. Still, officials have started to kill the 56,000 birds on the farm where the duck was found.
An outbreak of bird flu in 2004 in British Columbia prompted the killing of 17 million birds.
Japanese officials also reported that signs of a bird flu infection were found at a poultry farm in northern Japan. It was the latest in a series of outbreaks that has led to the killing of about 1.6 million chickens in the past few months in the region.
Tests were being conducted on the enclosed-range chickens at the affected farm in Ogawa, about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo, to determine whether 290,000 more birds would need to be killed, said Ibaraki state official Osamu Kamogawa.
The chickens tested positive for H5 antibodies — meaning they were once exposed to the virus — and a more detailed test is being conducted to see if the disease is still present, Kamogawa said.
Japan has asked travelers from bird flu-affected areas to have their shoes disinfected upon arrival at the country's four major airports, including Tokyo's international gateway at Narita.
Japan had a single human case of bird flu last year but the patient recovered.
Most people who have died or been sickened by bird flu had contact with sick birds. But international health experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that can pass from human to human, sparking a pandemic.
In Indonesia, Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said the number of human bird flu cases is likely to be far higher than reported in his sprawling country because of poor surveillance outside the capital, Jakarta. The government planned a nationwide campaign to measure the extent of the virus in Indonesia, Supari said.
All but two of Indonesia's 11 confirmed cases of bird flu — seven of which have been fatal — have occurred in the greater Jakarta area.
And in Hong Kong, a senior health official said the risk the virus might cross its border with China is increasing, but the city was prepared.
Leung Pak-yin, chief of the Center for Health Protection, told business leaders that if there's a flu pandemic, the city will try to ensure it has the world's lowest mortality rate and the economy will recover faster than any other place.
Hong Kong has been on hyper alert for signs of bird flu because the city's economy was devastated by the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS killed nearly 300 people in the city and caused widespread panic.
So far, Hong Kong has been spared in the latest outbreak of bird flu.