Rats tested for killer bird flu after eating dumped poultry

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The Independent Online
The World Health Organisation has started testing dogs, cats and rats in Hong Kong to find out whether the mysterious bird flu has spread to other animals.

The tests were revealed as the Hong Kong government came under increasing fire for its handling of the poultry cull which destroyed 1.4 million chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons and quail.

The tests on other animals were ordered after it became apparent that the authorities had left large bags of dead chickens in various places where they were seized and eaten by dogs, cats and rats.

Television pictures of dead chickens being carried away by scavenging dogs have added to a mood of public unease about the handling of the slaughter. It was supposed to take 24 hours but ended up lasting four days. Even after it was supposed to be over there were reports of poultry farms waiting for officials to complete their task.

While the cull was underway, government officials were seen supervising the killing of poultry in the markets wearing full protective clothing, but those actually killing the birds were doing so with bare hands, surrounded by blood and large numbers of scared birds.

The aim was to try and cut off the flu at its source. The death toll from the H5N1 virus has now reached 4 out of 15 confirmed and 6 suspected cases.

Yesterday the Executive Council, or cabinet of the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, met in emergency session to discuss the bird flu crisis. Beforehand one of the councillors, Tam Yiu-chung, publicly criticised the government's handling of the cull. He said decisions over the slaughter might have been made with undue haste. "Preparation or evaluation therefore was not sufficient," he said.

After the meeting Mr Tung admitted that there had been `inadequacies' in the government's actions and said "improvements need to be made". He promised that this would be "sorted out some time today".

Researchers have been unable to establish how a strain of flu previously only found in poultry is transmitted to humans. A bigger concern is whether the virus can be transmitted between humans.

Experts from the WHO believe the risks of human to human transmission are minimal because the virus, although potentially lethal once it takes root in victims, has weak powers of transmission. However, the virus may be mutating and gaining strength.