HK pins hopes on chicken slaughter

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The Independent Online
Hong Kong authorities were confident yesterday that they had exterminated their entire stock of poultry in the drive to halt a mysterious strain of flu. Stephen Vines watched the exterminators at work and asks if this drastic measure will succeed.

At Hong Kong's central market, traders were unceremoniously breaking the necks of chickens under the eye of officials wearing white face masks and plastic gloves. They watched the chickens packed into black bin liners, which were sealed and piled into trucks taking them to landfill sites for burial.

The traders killing the livestock did not look much happier than the chickens packed in cages, awaiting slaughter. Although they stand to get some pounds 2.30 compensation per bird, traders may also lose their business for the foreseeable future.

At a poultry farm near the Chinese border where the bird flu, known as the H5N1 virus, was found to be present, white-coated agricultural and fishery department officials arrived grim-faced with large canisters of carbon monoxide to gas the livestock.

With the birds dead, and the threat of prosecution for anyone found harbouring live poultry, a massive clean-up and fumigation exercise is under way which should leave Hong Kong with the cleanest poultry farms and markets in the world. But the bulk of the poultry entering the territory comes from the Chinese mainland, and there the authorities insist there is no sign of the H5N1 virus.

A Hong Kong health official said yesterday he had little doubt that the virus was present, albeit undetected, on the mainland. Siu Jun, a spokesman for China's Guangdong Quarantine Department, pledged full Chinese support in the fight against the potentially lethal flu.

The fear in Hong Kong is that if swift action is not taken, the virus will mutate and spread more readily from humans to humans. Until a boy died as a result of contracting the virus last summer, it had been thought that H5N1 was confined to chickens. It has now claimed four human lives in Hong Kong out of thirteen confirmed and seven suspected cases. The virus itself is not lethal. But if it is not identified early enough it leads to complications which can cause death.

There has been a surprising welcome in Hong Kong for the mass slaughter. But there is criticism of the way the government is handling potential victims.

Vast queues have been forming outside government clinics because authorities have declined to give testing materials to private doctors who outnumber those in public service. This is putting pressure on the public health sector and reducing the monitoring needed to keep the disease under control.