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Bird flu may have spread to mainland China

Hong Kong health workers
Health workers in Hong Kong dispose of dead chickens  

But officials there deny it

December 30, 1997
Web posted at: 11:12 a.m. EST (1612 GMT)

HONG KONG (CNN) -- As Hong Kong vendors slit the throats of their chickens and ducks and the government gassed farm poultry, there were reports Tuesday that the "bird flu" that has killed four people in Hong Kong may have spread to mainland China.

According to unofficial reports from sources in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, at least one person has died from the "bird flu" virus and others are sick. Chinese authorities deny the reports.

"There are no reports of cases of bird flu on the mainland," Chinese government spokesman Tang Quoqiang said.

On Monday, the Chinese state-run media reported the flu outbreak in Hong Kong, but did not mention that health officials there believe the virus originated in southern China. Mainland China supplies 80 percent of Hong Kong's chickens.

CNN's James Lee explains the slaughter process
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1.1M/27 sec./160x120
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"Southern China has always been regarded as the epicenter of influenza. And in fact, from the past, the new types of influenza vaccine, influenza virus, really come from China," said Mak Kwok Hang, a Hong Kong government health consultant.

Poultry markets dark and empty

A ban on the export of mainland chickens to Hong Kong remains in effect. And while China on Tuesday ordered broader and more frequent testing on its poultry farms, it insisted its birds are healthy and said it has no plans for a mass slaughter.

The Hong Kong government began a plan Monday to kill, disinfect and bury all of its chickens -- about 1.3 million of them. Ducks, geese, quail, pigeons, doves and other birds that have been in contact with chickens are being destroyed.

The drastic moves are intended to protect people from the influenza virus A H5N1, which has attacked birds for years but crossed into the human population for the first time this year. Thirteen people are known to have been infected, including four who died, while six others are suspected of being infected.

Places which already have been cleared of poultry were being hosed down and disinfected on Tuesday. Poultry markets were dark and empty and the only chickens on sale were frozen birds flown in from the United States or Europe.

Chicken vendors in Hong Kong seek more government compensation, because of lost business  

Farmers, vendors worry about future

With their livelihood wiped out, many poultry farmers and vendors in Hong Kong are appealing to the government for better compensation.

"Some have quit, others are taking a break at the moment. No one has any jobs," said one poultry vendor. "We are just waiting to see what the government will do. If this lasts a long time without any business, all I can do is close down."

The farmers and vendors are being offered the equivalent of about $4 per dead chicken.

"It's had a very great impact on our business. It's very important that people's confidence in chicken meat be restored," said Wat Chiu of the Hong Kong Hawkers Association.

One vendor said he's having trouble convincing customers that his chicken parts are imported.

Poultry vendor
Some poultry wholesalers in mainland China have never heard of "bird flu"  

"My frozen chicken sales dropped 90 percent," he said. "Today I sold only 10 pounds. Normally I sell several hundred."

Restaurants cope with menu loss

There are other consequences as well.

Restaurants, in particular, are learning to cope without one of Chinese cuisine's most popular ingredients. However, restaurant manager Tony Tse was not worried.

"Even if there's no chicken, people still need to fill their stomachs, so they'll order something else," he said.

Some customers seemed prepared to be flexible.

"I can't eat beef or I'll go crazy. Now I can't eat chicken. If I'm Jewish, I can't eat pork. I might as well become a vegetarian," one customer complained.

Correspondents Donna Liu and Rebecca MacKinnon contributed to this report.


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