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Hong Kong slaughters chickens in mass attack on flu

December 29, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ Vendors slit the throats of their chickens and ducks today, and government teams gassed flocks on farms in a mass slaughter designed to eradicate a mysterious flu that has killed four people.

Family flocks as well as commercial farms were targeted in the massive, 24-hour drive to kill Hong Kong’s estimated 1.2 million chickens.

Uncounted ducks, geese, quail and other edible birds also were being killed as suspected carriers of the influenza virus A H5N1, which has long been known to infect birds but jumped to humans for the first time this year.

Thirteen cases of the flu have been confirmed, including the four who died, and seven are suspected. The method of transmission remains a mystery, and there is no vaccine.

Not everyone exposed to the virus falls ill. At least nine people developed antibodies to the flu without developing marked symptoms and four who had been sickened were discharged from the hospital today after making full recoveries.

Vendors ``will not be allowed to sell any poultry until the poultry are confirmed to be safe,″ Chow Loi, an environmental health official, said as he supervised the slaughter at Hung Hom Market.

Government workers in white surgical masks and gloves moved down the market aisles with clipboards, keeping count while barefaced and barehanded vendors pulled birds from cages and drew their knives quickly across the necks. No vendors are known to have been sickened by the flu.

The teams threw the birds in plastic garbage bags, tossed in cupfuls of lime and sealed them in dumpsters for transportation to government-run landfills.

At the farms, the chickens were put into garbage bags, and carbon dioxide from canisters was piped into the bags through hoses.

``This is one of the ways to prevent the spread of the disease, to get rid of the source,″ said Chow.

However, critics said the slaughter does not answer the key question of where the virus is coming from.

``Until we know the answer, the killing of more than a million birds cannot hope to quell the public’s understandable fears,″ the South China Morning Post wrote in an unusual front-page editorial today.

It said all chickens entering Hong Kong also will have to be certified as safe. About 80 percent of Hong Kong’s poultry supply comes from mainland China.

China halted poultry shipments to Hong Kong last week but has insisted that none of its chickens are infected, raising questions about the effectiveness of its surveillance after shipments resume.

Hong Kong officials say they believe at least some infected chickens came from China.

Despite Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1, border controls have been maintained.

Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of China, accused the Hong Kong government on Monday of moving too slowly to clean up the chicken supply out of subservience to Beijing. He said it was obvious that China was the likely source, and that Hong Kong should have halted the chicken shipments on its own.

Opposition politicians also questioned the safety of burying _ rather than incinerating _ the slaughtered poultry. But David Chan, an Environmental Protection Department spokesman, said bagging and burying the carcasses was adequate.

Consumption of chickens, formerly Hong Kong’s most popular meat, had fallen so sharply in recent weeks that most vendors and farmers welcomed the slaughter, saying they were losing money by keeping the birds alive.

``People are buying other things, like pork and sausage,″ said Lui Ke, who sells frozen chicken parts imported from the United States at the Hung Hom Market. He said his sales fell 70 percent even though U.S. poultry has not come under suspicion.

The government prepared emergency legislation to compensate owners $3.85 per bird.

Restaurants specializing in chicken dishes also said business was down, despite doctors’ assurances that cooked chicken is safe. Some said they planned to close for a few days, while others said they used frozen chickens imported from the United States.

Much of the public worry stems from uncertainties about the flu.

The main mode of transmission seems to be from birds to humans, but officials said they cannot rule out human-to-human transmission.

They also are not sure if the virus is primarily airborne and don’t know why bird farmers or vendors have not been sickened.

The World Health Organization said the small number of victims makes it unnecessary to issue a travel advisory for Hong Kong.

Update hourly