Hong Kong has increased live chicken imports from China in anticipation of high demand for poultry during the coming Lunar New Year celebrations. But health experts warn of the risk of spreading bird flu during the season. From Hong Kong, VOA's Heda Bayron has this report, written by Juliet Ye.

Just as people in the West like to eat turkey or goose on festive occasions, chicken is a traditional dish for Lunar New Year celebrations - the most important Chinese festival. Chicken, especially when served whole, is believed to symbolize happiness and prosperity.

In Hong Kong, people shop for freshly slaughtered chicken at public markets where live chickens are packed densely in crates.

Hong Kong's government raised the number of daily chicken imports from China to up to 80,000 live birds in the week before the Chinese Lunar New Year, up from the normal 20,000. The holiday begins February 18.

With buyers and sellers handling more live poultry, health officials worry about the increased risk of human beings getting infected by the H5N1 bird flu virus.

Last month, China's health ministry confirmed a man in the eastern province of Anhui, who kept birds in his backyard, had contracted bird flu.

Dr. Lo Wing Lok, an infectious disease specialist, says the government should increase surveillance against possible bid flu infection this month.

" Hong Kong has already entered the danger period for catching colds and the flu. And the virus has already existed in this city," Dr. Lo said. "The Lunar New Year is approaching, more live chicken are to be imported and consumed by the citizens. The government should pay close attention to the possibility of live poultry infection."

The government food department says it is going to give extra attention to hygiene in live poultry wholesale markets and retail outlets. Officials also warn the traders not to overstock live poultry.

A government spokesman says the increased imports arrangement will be withdrawn immediately if any poultry or human bird flu is found in Guangdong.

The first reported human bird flu infections appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. The virus killed six people and led to the slaughter of more than a million birds.

The virus re-emerged last month when a dead bird tested positive for H5N1, the potentially deadly form of bird flu that has killed some 160 people worldwide since 2003.

The bird, a scaly breasted-munia, is commonly used as a prayer bird in Buddhist ceremonies that involves freeing hundreds of birds to improve one's luck. No human cases of bird flu have been reported in Hong Kong so far, but authorities have urged the religious practice to be stopped to protect the public health.

Food and customs officials have stepped up the inspections of backyard poultry along the city's borders and markets to crack down the smuggling of live chicken to the city in the New Year period. Hong Kong has already suspended all poultry imports from Britain following an outbreak of H5N1 there early this month.