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H5N1 outbreak in Hong Kong

15th December 2008

Chickens on a Hong Kong farm have tested positive for H5N1 avian influenza, raising the territory's bird flu alert threat level to "serious".


Authorities are planning to look into claims that eggs from mainland China could have carried the virus into Hong Kong, where measures against bird flu are severe.

In order to prevent the spread of the virus, all of the farm's chickens, and those within a 3 kilometre radius, have been slaughtered.

The chickens were infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which can spread to humans.

The H5N1 virus is under constant mutation, and a further change in transmissibility could potentially kill millions worldwide.

This was Hong Kong's first farm outbreak in five years in spite of mass vaccinations.

Such an outbreak could signal that the virus has gone through another mutation.

Health Secretary York Chow said that the death of 60 chickens on the farm was reported last week, and a series of tests confirmed that the chickens died of avian flu.

In the course of testing, three dead chickens were examined and 20 samples of faeces were gathered.

Officers wearing masks, medical suits and rubber gloves began the mass culling of tens of thousands of chickens soon after.

The officers were shown stuffing large amounts of chicken carcasses into bags.

In the past, the H5N1 virus prompted the mass culling of over one million birds each time.

Wong Yi-chuen, who worked at one of the stricken farms, said that the deaths of the chickens had been scattered, and that not as many chickens had died as in previous outbreaks.

A three-week ban on live poultry imports was imposed to contain any potential spread of the virus.

Chicken traders who have been hit by the ban on live chickens have claimed fertilised eggs brought from mainland China may be spreading the disease instead.

The affected farm was one of many in Hong Kong which are allowed to import fertilised eggs from mainland China.

The imports are meant to help Hong Kong farmers breed their own poultry.

But some bird flu experts dismissed the possibility of bird flu being spread by the live chicken embryos.

Leo Poon, a microbiologist from the University of Hong Kong said that it is very unlikely that the eggs would be infected with H5N1, because chickens that contract H5N1 would almost certainly stop laying eggs.

On the other hand, Poon did not rule out the possibility that the surfaces of eggs may be tainted with faecal matter contaminated with the virus.

Chow said officials would ban all chickens from leaving farms for three weeks as well as suspending imports of chicken, poultry, and birds.

The last bird flu outbreak in Hong Kong happened when the virus resurfaced in Asia in 2003.

The World Health Organisation says H5N1 has killed more than 200 people in 12 countries.


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