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Hong Kong poultry market shut amid fears of bird flu

Chicken market
Hong Kong's main chicken market has been shut down for cleaning   
December 15, 1997
Web posted at: 1:05 p.m. EST (1805 GMT)

HONG KONG (CNN) -- One of Hong Kong's largest wholesale poultry markets was closed Monday following the death of two people from a virus that previously was found only in birds and poultry.

Stacks of cages lay empty and the usual squawking of thousands of fowl was replaced by the sound of workers hosing down the Cheung Sha Wan poultry market, which sells more than one-third of the 80,000 chickens imported into Hong Kong daily from China. Government officials said the market will not reopen until Thursday, when a massive cleanup is completed.

The virus's known fatalities, a 3-year-old and an adult, were among seven people this year either confirmed or suspected to have contracted the influenza H5N1 strain.

With chicken sales down sharply at local retail markets since the flu virus surfaced, vendors at the market asked for the cleanup to restore public confidence in poultry. Officials said no infected chickens have been found at the market.

Factoid:
A new strain of flu can be devastating if it spreads rapidly. An outbreak of so-called Hong Kong flu in 1968 caused more than 40,000 deaths around the world. And a global flu epidemic in 1918 and 1919 claimed the lives of more than 20 million people.

Another poultry wholesale site, Western Wholesale Food Market, was also closed for cleanup.

Chicken meat sales plummeted 40 percent last week. The Cheung Sha Wan market alone saw a 70 percent plunge in sales, halving prices over the weekend to clear stock.

The government announced Monday that authorities in the neighboring Chinese province of Guangdong have agreed to step up the monitoring of chicken diseases in farms. Local television reported that the government was considering legislation to ban the import of chickens that do not meet certain standards.

No word on how virus spreads

Scientist
Scientists from the U.S. and China are working on a vaccine for the new virus   

Health officials have traced the virus to several small poultry farms where thousands of chickens died last spring. Most of Hong Kong's poultry comes from mainland China, which is where experts suspect the virus may have originated.

Authorities have ordered an emergency shipment of the anti-viral drug amantidine, which doctors believe may be helpful if taken in the early stages of infection.

But so far, scientists, including a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, do not know how the flu virus is contracted.

"We're speculating on something I don't know the answer to," said the CDC's Dr. Keiji Fukuda. "We just don't know that, because we haven't established that there is that transmission. But it is unlikely that you would be standing around a chicken and get the influenza virus that way."

Many Hong Kong residents have decided to forego chicken nonetheless. "With this chicken flu virus, people are more and more sensitive," one vendor said.

Scare prompts pet abandonment

The government has also issued a warning to Hong Kong schools, where raising live ducks and chickens as pets for the pupils is a common practice. Several kindergartens have already closed down their pet corners.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which normally takes in 100 small animals a month, said it received 70 birds and other small animals in the last week.

"People have the idea that this virus is passing to birds, to small animals, and then to children," said the society's Doreen Davies. "At the moment, nobody knows for sure."

The flu strain is considered potentially deadly because at this point, humans have no immunity to it.

Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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