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Birds slaughtered in bid to contain mystery flu

Dead chicken December 29, 1997
Web posted at: 7:25 a.m. EST (1225 GMT)

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Poultry workers and government teams in Hong Kong began the wholesale slaughter of birds Monday, the first step in a plan to contain the mysterious "bird flu" virus that has crossed over to humans and caused four recent deaths.

"Today is a field day," a spokeswoman for the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) told Reuters. "We are doing more than a million things at the same time."

The government plans to kill, disinfect and bury every chicken in Hong Kong -- some 1.3 million of them. An unknown number of ducks, geese, quail, pigeons, doves, and other birds that have been kept close to chickens will also be destroyed.

Government workers counted the birds, gathered the carcasses in plastic bags, and sprinkled them with lime before tossing the bags into sealed dumpsters. The birds will be taken to government-run landfills for disposal.

Drastic measures in Hong Kong to deal with bird flu
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"Everybody is very busy right now with the operation. We hope to complete it in a day and a half," the AFD spokeswoman said.

The inspectors wore surgical masks and gloves, while the vendors and workers worked without any such protection. No vendors are known to have contracted the flu.

While the birds' throats were cut in the retail stalls, government teams were set to visit farms and wholesale outlets to gas birds with carbon dioxide.

In addition to the slaughter of chickens, the government is setting up special clinics to test workers from Hong Kong's 160 chicken farms and 997 retail stalls.

Poultry business suffered from flu fears

Gathering up chickens

Authorities promised to compensate farmers and vendors, which pleases some whose business suffered as sales of chicken, once Hong Kong's most popular meat, fell sharply.

"I don't mind," one man said while slaughtering birds. "The government bought all my poultry."

Other vendors are less than pleased with the program. "If the government wanted to take this action, they should have told us earlier," one vendor told Reuters. "We have bought all this fresh stock and we're losing a lot of money."

On December 24, Hong Kong halted importation of chickens from mainland China, which provides some 80 percent of Hong Kong's chicken, fearing that imported birds were bringing the virus in. Chinese officials have pledged closer inspections of poultry.

Virus remains mysterious

Five experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are in Hong Kong, along with a CDC public relations spokeswoman, to study the illness. A representative from the World Health Organization is also present.

The virus, H5N1, has long been known to infect birds. It was first found in humans in May, when a 3-year-old died of the flu. The second case surfaced in November. Four people in all have died, out of 13 who have been confirmed to have the disease.

Another eight have developed antibodies to the virus, indicating that they have been exposed to it, but have not displayed any symptoms. The CDC developed a test for antibodies after discovering the new strain in a blood sample from the 3-year-old patient.

Dead chicken

The uncommonly high mortality rate makes the "bird flu" dangerous, experts say. CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds says that while 13 cases is insufficient to discern a pattern, when the flu infects healthy young to middle-aged adults, "their illness seems to progress rapidly into critical conditions."

Scientists cannot rule out human-to-human transmission of the virus, which makes an epidemic a possibility. The means of transmission remains a mystery, and there is no vaccine.

One of the people infected is a doctor who came into contact with the 3-year-old's bodily secretions. "We couldn't think of any other possible exposure, so that leaves the possibility of human-to-human transmission open," Reynolds said.

"But if it is happening, it's happening very inefficiently," she added.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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