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Bird Flu Claims Lives, Ways of Life in Asia
Hong Kong Discourages Buddhist Ritual

By Dikky Sinn
Associated Press
Sunday, January 14, 2007

HONG KONG, Jan. 13 -- Something was strange about the little brown bird found dead from bird flu in one of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts.

The scaly-breasted munia usually lives in rural areas of the territory. So how did it and five others come to be in a bustling urban district -- raising the threat of exposing residents and tourists to the virus?

Experts think the six munia may have been used in a Buddhist ritual that frees hundreds of birds to improve karma. So, with worries rising in Asia about a new outbreak of bird flu, officials are urging that the religious practice be stopped to protect public health.

Bird flu first appeared here in 1997, when it jumped to humans and killed six people. That prompted the government to slaughter the territory's entire poultry population of 1.5 million birds, and the disease has since largely spared this city of 6.9 million people.

But authorities remain on alert, particularly with new outbreaks in other parts of Asia.

In Japan, agricultural officials announced Saturday that the H5 strain of bird flu had been identified in thousands of chickens that died at a poultry farm in the south.

Further tests were underway to determine if it was the H5N1 strain, which has killed 159 people worldwide since 2003, according to the World Health Organization.

Indonesia said two more people there have died from bird flu, raising the toll this week to four in the latest cases to strike the country worst hit by the virus. Sixty-one Indonesians have died since H5N1 first appeared there in commercial poultry stocks and backyard chickens in 2004.

Indonesian authorities said all four dead were believed to have caught the virus directly from chickens and were not known to have had contact with one another. Bird flu remains hard for humans to catch, but international experts are keeping close watch for signs that it has mutated into a form that could spread easily between humans and potentially set off a worldwide pandemic.

When Hong Kong officials discovered that a scaly-breasted munia found dead on New Year's Eve had tested positive for the H5 virus, they held a televised news conference to alert the public. A few days later, they said further tests showed the bird had the H5N1 strain.

The scaly-breasted munia is native to Hong Kong but is usually found in tussocks in rural areas, said Lew Young, a manager at the Chinese territory's Mai Po bird sanctuary.

"Six scaly-breasted munia being found dead at the same spot at one time easily leads one to suspect whether they were being released," he said.

The birds are commonly used in the Buddhist ceremonies, Young added. "They are usually transported to Hong Kong from the mainland in boxes. If one of the birds is sick, the rest are likely to be sick as well, since they are crammed in one box," he said.

One Buddhist group said many of its followers had stopped releasing birds since the avian flu outbreak was reported in Hong Kong.

"Some of the followers do not feel comfortable getting in touch with birds since bird flu cases were reported. They were worried the birds might be infected," said Winnie Lam, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Buddhist Cultural Association.

Lam said the group used to free more than 1,000 birds at one time, but now releases hundreds of fish into the sea each month. "We believe releasing life can build up one's benevolence, and life belongs to the nature," she said.

The Hong Kong government has called on the public not to free birds, but it declines to comment on whether it has considered a formal ban on releases.

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