Hong Kong authorities announced yesterday that all chickens would be gassed within 24 hours, as part of a drive to counter the "bird flu" virus which has killed four people and infected up to 16 others.
The decision to slaughter the territory's estimated 1.2 million chickens was taken after hundreds of chickens died on Saturday at a poultry market, and as traces of virus were found at a chicken farm near the Chinese border.
The step looks drastic. But the authorities feel they have no choice, if they are to quell panic among tourists as well as locals, and restore confidence in the supply of one of the Chinese diet's most basic ingredients.
The chickens will be collected from almost 200 chicken rearing farms and from about 1,000 shops and market stalls. They will be gassed with carbon dioxide, placed in plastic bags and transferred to landfills in three parts of the territory.
The dead chickens, strangely enough, will then form part of the base on which Hong Kong's huge new housing developments are to be built, on land reclaimed from the sea.
As queues lengthened yesterday outside hospitals of people wanting checks to discover if they had the disease, angry chicken sellers accused the government of over-reacting. Some even attacked reporters covering the closure of the chicken markets, accusing them of stirring up the panic.
An emergency request will be made to Hong Kong's legislature to provide compensation for the birds. This will do little to make up for an almost total loss of business as customers shy away from local and Chinese-raised chickens.
The slaughter of the chickens poses a big problem for cooks. They usually insist on freshly killed chickens and are reluctant to use the frozen imported alternatives from the United States, Denmark and Brazil. The dilemma will become acute at the end of next month, when the Chinese New Year festivities begin. This is the most important time in the calendar. As in all Chinese festivals, the celebration centres on food dishes. Chicken, of course, stars in many of them.
The strain of flu which has caused the panic, known as the H5N1 virus, was identified four months ago. It has not been recorded anywhere else in the world and was identified only after the death of a young boy. Researchers have not established how a strain of flu previously found only in poultry was transmitted to humans.
The virus attacks the respiratory system as well as other organs. Several of those who died first developed pneumonia.
Officials from Hong Kong and the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the weekend warned that children faced the greatest risk.
Although the Hong Kong authorities have acted decisively to cleanse chicken production in the territory, the bulk of chickens sold in Hong Kong in fact come from the Chinese mainland. There, the authorities insist they have found no evidence of the H5N1 virus in local farms. A temporary ban on importing Chinese chickens is, nevertheless, in force. The Hong Kong authorities are believed to have identified at least one Chinese farm where the virus is present. However, as Hong Kong is now part of China, it is difficult for the territory to insist on action from the mainland.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is considering sending an investigation team to China, although that would depend on co-operation from Peking. WHO experts said at the weekend that the risk of human-to-human transmission was low. The virus, although potentially lethal, has weak powers of transmission.
The bird flu is not only causing problems for fussy cooks. It is also hitting one of Hong Kong's main foreign currency earners, the tourist industry. Fears of the disease are strong among the Japanese, once the territory's best tourism customers. Now, they are staying away in droves.Reuse content