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HK in path of bird flu outbreak

From CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy

Hong Kong health officials check for bird flu at a poultry farm.
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Health experts warn that the bird flu virus will be the most likely cause of the next human flu pandemic.
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HONG KONG (CNN) -- As warnings mount that a major outbreak of bird flu is a matter of when, not if, concerns that Hong Kong will be among the hardest hit areas from such a scenario are growing.

All the great flu pandemics of the last century have originated in southern China, which puts Hong Kong in a very dangerous neighborhood.

In 1997, Hong Kong was ground zero -- the first place where avian flu jumped the species barrier to infect, and kill, human beings.

The outbreak saw the Hong Kong government take the unprecedented step of slaughtering every chicken, duck, dove and goose in the territory.

"Hong Kong and southern China are in an area where everything comes together. It's like the perfect storm -- animals, the virus, population density," said Dr. John Nichols, a pathologist at the Hong Kong University.

Nichols, who's part of a team at the cutting edge of research on avian flu, works at the laboratory where much of the work of identifying the virus was done during the 1997 outbreak.

But as fears of a pandemic grow, scientists are expressing concern at how little they actually know about the disease.

"From the science point of view, the thing I get worried about is the paucity of information, the fact that we are dealing with something that is evolving very rapidly. We may not have the time to do the long-standing research," Nichols said.

Avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds caused by type A strains of the influenza virus. The disease, first identified in Italy more than 100 years ago, occurs worldwide.

Infection triggers a wide spectrum of symptoms in birds, ranging from mild illness to a highly contagious and rapidly fatal disease resulting in severe epidemics.

In severe cases, the flu is characterized by a sudden onset of severe illness, and rapid death, with a mortality that can approach 100 percent.

Hong Kong's government is taking a future outbreak very seriously, especially after last year's SARS epidemic, by providing more training for medical staff, stockpiling protective clothing, and setting up dedicated hospital isolation wards.

And, with scientists like Nichols still struggling to unravel the secrets of the virus, Hong Kong's track record of intensive preparation and drastic action may be the best, if not the only, defense against avian flu.

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