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Hong Kong 'chicken flu' suspected in 2 more cases

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December 16, 1997
Web posted at: 6:04 p.m. EST (2304 GMT)
The Hong Kong government has imposed tighter controls on the sale of chickens from mainland China   

HONG KONG (CNN) -- Two new suspected cases of so-called "chicken flu" have been recorded in Hong Kong, and health officials said they could not rule out the possibility of human-to-human transmission.

The rare and deadly influenza virus, previously found only in birds and poultry, has infected six people and is suspected of infecting three others in Hong Kong. Patients in two of the confirmed cases -- a child and an adult -- have died.

Hong Kong Director of Health Margaret Chan told reporters the new suspected cases involve a 2-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, who are in satisfactory condition. They are cousins of a 5-year-old girl who was confirmed to have contracted the flu and was still in a hospital intensive care unit.

A L S O :

Shalala gets a read on new flu

It is the first time several members of one family have been sickened, and reinforced concern that the virus can be spread not just from live birds to humans but from person to person.

CNN's Dr. Steve Salvatore explains the "chicken flu"
icon 2 min. VXtreme video

"We feel it is possible that both modes of transmission are occurring," Chan said.

A total of 65 people who were in contact with victims reported flu-like symptoms but recovered, she said, adding that it was too early to say if any had the virus.

Keiji Fukuda from the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- among several international experts hunting for the source of what is technically known as the H5NI virus -- said the danger of human-to-human transmission appeared to be low because the virus has not spread quickly.

But, the longer the virus persists among humans, "the greater the chances that it will become adapted to humans," he told CNN. (icon 256K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Preventive steps

To prevent the disease from spreading, authorities have taken a series of steps:

  • Stricter hygiene requirements and closer inspections in local poultry markets.
  • One of Hong Kong's largest wholesale poultry markets -- the Cheung Sha Wan market -- was closed on Monday and is due to reopen on Thursday, when a massive cleanup is completed.
  • Heightened screening of poultry imported from mainland China, where Hong Kong gets most of its chickens.
  • A new public information program.

Global epidemic?

An international team of scientists is working to find a vaccine for the new virus   

Some medical experts say that without more information about the "chicken flu," it could become a global epidemic. Flu shots now in use offer no protection, said virus expert Robert Webster, a member of the World Health Organization influenza team.

"The scientists of the world ... are doing their very best to come up with a suitable vaccine," Webster, just returned from Hong Kong, said Monday in Washington.

"It is an unusual virus for an influenza virus and there is a lot we don't understand about why it has appeared, how it appeared, how it is being propagated," says Fukuda

But, with so few cases at present, health officials stress the outbreak is not an epidemic, raising hope that there is still time for it to be understood sufficiently so that it can be brought under control.

Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.

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