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Poultry slaughtered in Hong Kong in hopes of wiping out mystery flu

December 30, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ Hong Kong farms and markets were scenes of a massive slaughter Monday as farmers, vendors and government workers systematically destroyed poultry blamed for a virus that has killed four people.

In the markets, government workers in white surgical masks and gloves moved down aisles holding clipboards, keeping count as barefaced and barehanded vendors calmly pulled birds from cages and drew their knives quickly across the necks.

The teams threw the carcasses in plastic garbage bags, tossed in cupfuls of lime, then sealed the bags in trash bins for transportation to government-run landfills.

On farms, government teams placed chickens into garbage bags and piped carbon dioxide into the bags through hoses.

By evening, hundreds of bags of carcasses had been trucked to government landfills.

Government departments said they completed the slaughter of more than 106,000 poultry in the territory’s more than 1,000 retail markets and shops by Monday night.

However, the killing at nearly 200 farms went slower than expected, and government crews worked through the night.

From the beginning, officials were uncertain exactly how many chickens there were to be killed, but estimated at least 1.2 million.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman at the Agriculture and Fisheries Department noted that there were an estimated 1.2 million chickens to be killed on farms alone. She could not say how many of the farm chickens had been slaughtered as of Tuesday.

The government had originally set a 24-hour deadline for the operation, but the spokeswoman said Tuesday the goal was simply to finish as soon as possible.

The government ordered the slaughter after discovering the influenza virus A H5N1 among chickens on a farm. The virus has long been known to infect birds, but it jumped to humans for the first time this year.

As of Monday, 13 people were confirmed as having the flu, including the four who died and six who recovered fully. Seven others were suspected of having the flu, including two who recovered.

Experts do not know whether humans can get the virus from each other or just from birds. Another question is whether the virus is primarily airborne or if it can be contracted by handling bird droppings. There is no vaccine.

Not everyone exposed to the virus falls ill, however. At least nine people developed antibodies to the flu without having marked flu symptoms. No poultry workers are known to have been sickened.

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.

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

However, critics said that could not be assured because the source of the virus remains unknown.

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

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, and Hong Kong officials believe at least some infected chickens came from China.

China halted poultry shipments to Hong Kong last week for an indefinite period but insists none of its chickens are infected, raising questions about the effectiveness of its surveillance. Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of China, accused the Hong Kong government 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.

South Korea disclosed that it has been testing poultry imported from China for the past 10 days, but has not found any cases of infection. The Philippine government also has expressed concern about the virus spreading.

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.

The government prepared emergency legislation that would compensate owners by $3.85 per bird. Some owners said this was not enough.

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 were buying frozen chicken from the United States.

Chicken prices in the Chinese province closest to Hong Kong also have fallen because of the lost sales to Hong Kong, according to a mainland newspaper, the China Daily.

The World Health Organization has said that the small number of people sickened makes it unnecessary to issue any travel advisory for Hong Kong.

Update hourly