Amid global fears that a deadly bird flu virus sweeping through bird flocks in Asia could mutate into a human flu that could kill millions, preparedness to handle a possible worldwide outbreak is becoming the new front of cooperation for the United States and China.

“Avian flu is the number one internal development in China that is causing serious concern in Washington because of the country’s history as a launching pad for other infectious diseases,’’ says Bates Gill, a China researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The attention to Beijing’s preparedness to fight the bird flu comes as China beefed up its measures to contain the incremental spread of the disease among its large domestic poultry and called in the World Health Organisation (WHO) to determine whether it had suffered its first human case of the virus. The authorities were quick to deny that a 12-year-old girl from Hunan province who died after eating a chicken believed to be infected with the H5N1 virus had contracted the bird flu. But Beijing reversed its stance and said that the disease had not been ruled out as the cause of her death.

Experts said although the three cases are diagnosed as pneumonia of unknown causes at present, the possibility of human infection of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu cannot be ruled out. The girl had died two weeks earlier after eating a chicken that had fallen ill.

The authorities ordered all 168 live poultry markets in Beijing shut, banned the import of poultry products from the provinces in the capital and announced a temporary halt to domesticated pigeon flying. Local officials seized live chickens and ducks in Beijing which were being raised in homes. Health officials also announced a crackdown on peddlers selling birds that had died from the flu in the affected areas.

The latest outbreak in Heishan country has raised alarms that the virus is encroaching on the capital and prompted authorities to call in the army and the military police to help isolate the affected villages. Reports said that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has chalked out contingency plans.

The Chinese government plans to set aside $25 million for bird flu prevention and a control fund to create a national headquarters for bird flu control and prevention. Nevertheless, transparency remains a deep concern. Local officials often try to suppress the news. Enforcing an early warning system for epidemics such as bird flu is one of the issues Bush would discuss with the Chinese leaders during his China visit from November 19 to 21, says Bonnie Glaser, another China scholar.

Bush issued an urgent warning about the bird flu last week, unveiling a seven billion dollar flu-fighting plan. Against the backdrop of the plan, which calls for global preparedness for vaccination, quarantine and treatment, Beijing and Washington are discussing how to strengthen China’s public health capacity.

US researchers say the ability of China’s local centres for disease prevention has been weakening because of years of fina-ncial neglect. “A new disease agreement between Washington and Beijing is seen emerging and that is likely to emphasise capacity building

for China’s public health,’’ said Gill. — IPS