Monks pray for chicken souls as flu vaccine sought

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The Independent Online
Buddhist monks in Hong Kong were in their temples yesterday praying to pacify the souls of the chickens and other poultry which have been slaughtered in an attempt to stop the spread of the mysterious bird flu.

While they were praying, legislators were accusing the government of having lost control over the H5N1 virus outbreak. At a special meeting they criticised government officials for providing inadequate and contradictory information and questioned whether the slaughter of some 1.3 million birds would be sufficient to stop the virus taking hold and causing more deaths.

The Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who has been notable for his silence over the bird flu crisis, finally broke it yesterday during a visit to a poultry market when he stressed that the government was "very concerned". Angry poultry industry workers chanted slogans during his visit, demanding higher levels of compensation for the loss of business.

Meanwhile Paul Shaw, the deputy director of health, announced that contingency plans had been to close crowded places to minimise the spread of the virus should the outbreak escalate into an epidemic.

He told legislators that the government was working on a vaccine that would fight the virus should a "disaster scenario" occur. It would take some six months to prepare a vaccine, however.

Now that the cull of live poultry has been completed the government is trying to ensure that fresh supplies of live birds from the Chinese mainland do not reintroduce the virus. It therefore seems likely that a ban on imports will last for some weeks. This means there will be no fresh chicken supply for the Chinese New Year festivities. Many traditional dishes involve chicken meat.

The Chinese authorities say that a "special expert investigation" by the Ministry of Agriculture since 17 December found no positive tests from 1,078 chicken blood samples in Guangdong province, which supplies about 70 per cent of Hong Kong's consumption.

Although there have been no reports of human cases of bird flu on the Chinese mainland, this may be because there is less likelihood of it being successfully identified because the standard of medical care is so much lower than Hong Kong, and diagnostic equipment is not readily available in rural areas.

- Stephen Vines, Hong Kong

Teresa Poole, Peking