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Hong Kong Government's Strict Hygiene Rules Stir Controversy Among Poor - 2003-08-29

Hong Kong wants its residents to clean up their homes and the city to prevent new outbreaks of SARS and avian flu.

Amid Hong Kong's soaring skyscrapers and upscale shopping districts sit markets selling the live fish and chickens that make up a large part of the city's cuisine.

But that might soon change.

A man who has been butchering and selling chickens in this market for more than 50 years worries that one day the government here will ban his trade altogether.

He also says new hygiene laws, which force him to close his stalls every month for cleaning, are bothersome and cost him business.

Other stall owners at the market say the cleaning is necessary to stave off diseases, such as the H5N1 avian flu, which killed at least six people in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. The disease spread directly from birds to people in the city, and the Hong Kong government responded by having every chicken in the territory killed. International health experts say that action prevented a larger outbreak of a deadly virus.

Hygiene is suddenly high on the agenda in Hong Kong. City officials are demanding a cleaner, tidier city to prevent outbreaks of disease, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS infected 1,700 people in Hong Kong and killed almost 300 earlier this year. The virus was carried in respiratory fluids, which can be spread by spitting or poor personal hygiene.

As part of the cleanup, a government committee is considering a ban on the import of live chickens for sale in markets. The team suggests that the government create a centralized slaughterhouse for livestock.

One microbiologist, however, says that move would not necessarily lower the risk of disease.

"They've [the government] been talking about this for many years to slaughter the chickens in one area," said Dr. Albert Yu, the chief executive and founder of HKDNA Chips, a local biotechnology company that has developed a diagnostic test for both SARS and the avian flu virus. "I don't think it is necessary to consider," he continued. "Even if we have the frozen chicken imported from China, we still have to check whether the chicken [is] contaminated with the flu virus.

Instead, Dr. Yu suggests that market hygiene be stepped up. The market buildings are owned by the government, and merchants rent stalls. Dr. Yu says ending government ownership would force the markets to compete, and that would push owners to clean up.

In the post-SARS campaign to clean up Hong Kong, government officials have identified public housing complexes as problem areas.

About half the city's population lives in often-crowded public housing. The government now is imposing a system of demerit points, which residents of public housing would receive for violating hygiene laws. Those who accumulate too many points will be evicted.

In one of its most controversial moves, the government promises to strictly enforce its ban on pets in public housing.

Mark O'Byrne, a veterinarian who offers advice to pet owners on a popular radio talk show, says the policy is unfair.

"We see a lot of pet owners in these housing estates that keep their pets in absolutely pristine, immaculate condition and [the pets] are taken to the vets for regular health checks," he said.

The government estimates that up to 200,000 households have at least one pet in the city's 160 public housing complexes.

A senior manager at Hong Kong's Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals calls the government's move a violation of human and animal rights. She says that cats and dogs might be the only companions many elderly residents in public housing have.

Doris Yiu, the head of communications at the SPCA, says the move is unwise, as it could compromise good hygiene, rather than promote it.

"There will be a lot of animals rushing out of the public housing," she said. "But we can't find them any more homes, and we are full to our capacity. The only option is to put them to sleep. And if they abandon them on the street, that will cause an even more serious hygiene problem for the public."

Pet owners complain that forcing residents in public housing to give up their pets discriminates against the poor, and sends a message that only wealthy people should be allowed pets.

While territory-wide cleaning campaigns have been met with criticism, efforts to promote personal hygiene have been applauded.

British health official Sian Griffiths heads an independent panel of scientists examining how the Hong Kong government handled the SARS crisis.

"Because of the possibility of the disease emerging at any time, there is a continued need to re-emphasize to the public the personal hygiene messages, and to maintain those messages not just in epidemic times, but so they get embedded in the culture of our children," said Mr. Griffiths.

These days, public service announcements to promote hand-washing have become frequent and memorable.

"Spitting and littering spread germs and blight the environment…," sounded one of them.

One television advertisement shows how germs - represented by a computer-generated green slime - are carried into homes on unwashed hands.

Perhaps one of the most effective hygiene initiatives is a new $200 fine for spitting and littering. The fines, which have been more than doubled in the past six months, are stiffer than penalties for illegal parking.

Even stricter penalties could be on the way; Hong Kong's hygiene task force recently proposed that repeat offenders of hygiene laws be imprisoned.