Hong Kong's government has temporarily closed the city's famous pet bird market after a bird for sale there was found to be carrying the H5N1 avian flu virus. Authorities say they will step up measures to combat bird flu, including a crackdown on the smuggling of birds into Hong Kong. Claudia Blume reports.
Hong Kong's famous Bird Garden in the city's busy Mongkok district usually bustles with residents bargaining for exotic birds as pets and with tourists who love the market's lively, colorful atmosphere. Now, a grim-looking guard at the entrance of the market makes sure no one enters.
The shutters of most of the 70 shops are down. A few, mostly elderly, vendors sit around with nothing to do.
They have put up a banner that sums up their feelings.
One of the vendors reads aloud, "This tourist spot has been turned into a ruin."
This woman says that her life is very hard right now. She says she does not have any customers and cannot earn any money.
Hong Kong's health officials closed the bird market about two weeks ago after a starling there was found to be carrying the H5N1 avian flu virus. All birds in that shop were removed and the market vendors were asked to thoroughly clean and disinfect their stalls. Hong Kong's agriculture and fisheries department has been collecting and testing samples from bird stalls to test for avian flu viruses.
Eric Tai, a veterinarian working for the department, said "Our last batch of samples for this exercise was collected earlier this week and if things go well, when everything is negative, showing there is no virus around, when that result comes out, then we will be opening the market again."
When the market opens, the department will introduce stricter regulations to ensure that all birds on sale are from approved sources, have valid health certificates and have been legally imported into Hong Kong. Tai says the agricultural department will step up its cooperation with customs officials.
"With these few methods we hope that the origin of the bird will be safe, and that we will be able to trace the source and that there will be no birds from unknown sources entering our licensed premises," he added.
The starling carrying the bird flu virus had no health certificate, raising suspicion it might have been smuggled into Hong Kong.
Hong Kong aggressively tests for bird flu after an outbreak in 1997 jumped to humans and killed six people, the first human cases ever recorded from the virus. More than 12 wild birds have died from avian flu in the territory this year.
The H5N1 virus has spread throughout Asia and into Africa and Europe. More than 150 people have died from the disease; most caught the virus after handling sick birds. While human infections are rare, many scientists fear the virus could mutate so it can spread easily among humans, causing a pandemic.