Health workers collect blood samples from chickens at a poultry farm in… (ChinaFotoPress / Getty…)
BEIJING — On a subway car in Shanghai, commotion breaks out when someone spots a live chicken poking its head out of a bag tucked under one of the seats.
On a highway in Zhejiang province, a motorist is so panicked by bird droppings landing on her windshield that she stops the car and calls traffic police for help.
Internet photos of dead sparrows on a Nanjing sidewalk are ordered removed by police, fearing they might go viral.
The fowl phobia gripping China is the result of a new strain of avian flu that has led to 18 deaths and 95 diagnosed illnesses over the last month.
Health authorities are concerned because of the unpredictable nature of the virus, known as H7N9. Unlike in previous incarnations of avian flu, infected birds here are showing no signs of being sick, making it harder to stem the disease at its source.
So far, there is no evidence that the strain of flu can be easily transmitted from human to human; such transmission is an earmark of a potential pandemic.
But the number of people having direct contact with birds is limited, so researchers are not quite sure how this year's patients have been getting sick.
Although the earliest cases involved farmers and poultry dealers, in more than half of the more recent infections the people had no direct contact with birds, Michael O'Leary, head of the World Health Organization's China office, said at a briefing Friday.
Consequently, the unknown has given way to fear.
Pigeon fanciers around China have canceled events. Notices have gone up in diplomatic residences around Beijing instructing people not to take children to the zoo. Tables at Beijing's most popular Peking duck restaurant are now available without a reservation.
"People are scared. Nobody is buying chickens or ducks," said Li Guoli, a young man standing at a Beijing fresh market counter where the chicken legs weren't selling. At the next stall, business was so slow that the vendor was sound asleep.
Fifteen experts from the United Nations' top health agency have launched an investigation of the outbreak, concerned that it could become far more deadly.
"What we don't know is the size of the iceberg under this tip," O'Leary said.
The Chinese government appears to be struggling to contain the problem, without taking steps that would result in outright panic.
"It is a really challenging road to walk. You don't want to be hyperbolic and scare people, but you want to prepare for the worst-case scenario," said Myles Druckman, a vice president with International SOS, which advises companies on health issues.
As with other outbreaks in China, fear itself can prove economically devastating.
The 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people, caused $40 billion to $80 billion in financial losses.
China is already seeing an effect on travel, restaurant visits and food production. Sales at KFC's nearly 5,000 restaurants in China dropped about 16% in March, according to parent company Yum Brands.
Health experts advise that there is no danger in eating cooked poultry.
"I eat chicken every day," WHO's O'Leary said at Friday's news conference. "Chicken is of no concern at all."
Also trying to reassure a worried public, an official in Hunan province hosted a banquet Wednesday for about 150 workers at which he served only poultry: chile fried chicken, chicken wings, chicken intestines and duck eggs.
At least 10 people have been arrested under a Chinese law banning rumors, charged with posting false information about new cases of bird flu.
Panic may also be spreading to hospitals. Last week, the husband of a 26-year-old who died during childbirth in Shanghai charged that hospital workers had failed to undertake an emergency caesarean section because they feared her cold symptoms might have been from the H7N9 virus.
One problem is that many Chinese do not believe their government's reassurances, especially given the well-documented coverup of the SARS epidemic a decade ago. Another is that previous outbreaks of bird flu — the H5N1 strain — in China resulted in 30 deaths, according to the latest World Health Organization statistics.
The unease has been compounded by the sight of more than 10,000 dead pigs washing up last month on the banks of Shanghai's main river. There have also been unexplained deaths of many ducks in Sichuan province and a few black swans in Anhui province, as well as the sparrows in Nanjing. Authorities have not tied any of the animal deaths to the bird flu, but they have not given clear explanations either.
"The panic is linked to the confusion about what is going on," said Jean-Yves Chow, a food industry analyst with Rabobank in Hong Kong. "Bird flu has happened many times in Asia before, but this time there are human deaths and it comes right after a series of other food safety concerns."