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Hong Kong Acts to Curb Avian Virus

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 12, 2008

BEIJING, June 11 -- Hong Kong authorities announced Wednesday that they planned to kill all poultry in the territory's retail markets because of fears of a dangerous bird flu outbreak.

Health officials said they detected the deadly H5N1 virus last week in chickens at a stall in the Kowloon area and slaughtered about 2,700 animals in that neighborhood to prevent its spread. But more cases were uncovered this week at four markets in the New Territories and Hong Kong Island, leading to the order to get rid of all remaining live poultry in retail markets, stalls and stores.

The order does not affect sales of pre-slaughtered poultry sold packaged in supermarkets, as is common in much of the world. But Hong Kong residents have a long tradition of buying live chickens and readying them for the kitchen at home.

No humans are known to have been infected in the current outbreak, the officials said. But Hong Kong, a densely populated city of 7 million, has been particularly sensitive about contagious diseases since the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic broke out in 2003.

"We are closely monitoring the possibility of human cases, and we will remain alert," Thomas Tsang, a senior health official, told the Associated Press.

About 3,500 more birds will have to be slaughtered in the several hundred shops and stalls that sell live poultry, officials told the Reuters news agency. "Of course we cannot be complacent," said Cheung Sui-hing, director for agriculture, fisheries and conservation.

The order does not apply to Hong Kong's chicken farmers and wholesale distributors, where no infections have been detected, they said. But it included a 21-day ban on poultry imports from mainland China, the source of most of Hong Kong's live chickens.

The H5N1 virus has killed 241 people, many of them in Asia, since the current bird flu outbreaks began in 2003. It is relatively difficult to catch from poultry. But scientists and public health officials have warned that it could mutate into a form that would pass from human to human, setting off an epidemic.

Hong Kong authorities uncovered 21 cases of H5N1 infections in 2007 and have ordered large-scale culls and import bans several times. Six people died during a 1997 outbreak.

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