`Bird flu' found in two more children

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Two more young children in Hong Kong fell victim to "bird flu" yesterday. There have been 11 confirmed and 9 suspected cases and four fatalities. Although it is not yet causing panic, hospitals and clinics are overflowing with worried patients.

The flu, properly known as the H5N1 virus, was previously only found in poultry. Its spread in Hong Kong has shown it can be transmitted from birds to humans but doctors do not know exactly how, nor if it can spread from human to human. A one-year-old boy, previously suspected of having the virus, and a three-year-old girl were the latest to be diagnosed with the flu, a government statement said.

Poultry markets have been temporarily closed and fumigated and hygiene instructions issued. The Chinese have been persuaded to impose a temporary ban on the export of poultry to Hong Kong, and measures are being taken to set up testing procedures before birds are shipped across the border. The mainland is the main source of chickens for Hong Kong.

Although official Chinese co-operation has been welcomed, there is concern over an announcement on Thursday in the border town of Shenzhen that shipments should resume next week because inspection procedures would be finalised by then. The Chinese say farms inspected showed no signs of the virus; there are also no reports of anyone there having bird flu. But birds in China are known to have died of it. Hong Kong has no power to ban exports from the mainland; instead, it has to rely on "voluntary" bans.

The virus is not necessarily a killer but, if not detected early enough, it leads to complications which can be fatal.

- Steven Vines, Hong Kong

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