Hong Kong Bans Sale of Live Poultry to Combat Deadly Bird Flu

Prospero LaputKate Pound Dawson

Authorities in Hong Kong, battling the worst outbreak of avian flu in five years, have ordered the slaughter of all live birds in the city's markets and banned the sale of live poultry. In 1997, the city was the first place to report human cases of bird flu.  Although the current outbreak is only in fowl, some critics say the government has acted too slowly. Others say the sale ban is hurting business. VOA's Kate Pound Dawson has this report, prepared by producer Pros Laput in Hong Kong.

Within days after the deadly H5N1 strain was discovered, all live chickens in Hong Kong markets had been killed and imports of live poultry from mainland China were suspended.

"In our surveillance we were able to detect H5N1 in our environment,” said York Chow, Hong Kong's Food and Health Secretary. “We are able to …very quickly show that in four of the markets, that they have very similar virus. And that's the reason why we took very timely action to cull all the chicken and make sure the public is safe." 

China is the main source of Honk Kong's poultry.  The government's order did not apply to sales of pre-slaughtered and packaged poultry.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Lo Wing-lok says the government did not move fast enough.  

"In the past, should there be human cases of H5N1 in Guangdong, all poultry importation from Guangdong will be stopped. But now this no longer stands,” Lo added.

Lo says the government had too much confidence in its system of certifying poultry farms in mainland China. A farm there can send poultry to Hong Kong unless the bird flu virus is found on the farm. 

"This is a big mistake because ... there could be a mixture of poultry from authorized farm and poultry from unauthorized farm all in the name of the authorized farm," Lo explains.

One man's family has sold chickens here for more than 30 years.  He says illegal chickens are being brought into the city to meet the demand for fresh poultry.

A live chicken retailer said, "And with the demand-supply theory, since the price keeps going up, there will be smuggling for sure."

Outside the Legislative Council building, he and other chicken sellers call on the government to produce a policy on imports that will save their businesses.  The government has promised to compensate shop owners whose chickens were confiscated and killed.  

The government says regulations on poultry imports will have to balance health safety with food needs. The ban on live poultry from mainland China is to last for 21 days.  But Lo is worried. 

"I'm worried about the complacency of the government. If the government is complacent on H5N1, the government can be complacent in other infectious diseases .... All these can have a major impact in the community," he said.

The H5N1 virus has killed more than 240 people worldwide, since 2003.  Most caught the disease from sick birds. But experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that is easily passed to humans.  In crowded Hong Kong, that would be a disaster.


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