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Hong Kong puts lid on bird flu

By staff and wires reports

HONG KONG, China -- As the cause and origin of Hong Kong's bird flu remain unknown, Buddhist monks in the territory are praying for the lost souls of the killed in a mass slaughter.

Health officials in white gowns, masks and gloves sealed off chicken and duck stalls in more than 130 markets in Hong Kong's public housing areas Sunday killing thousands of birds.

They stuffed the carcasses into hundreds of garbage bags before hauling them in trucks to landfills.

Secretary Lily Yam of the Department of the Environment and Food said the government is "still studying the cause and origin" of the H5N1 bird flu strain that has caused a public health scare in Hong Kong.

Yam stressed that the extensive disinfecting operations were a "precautionary measure" to stem the risk of the virus mutating into one that can kill humans. Asia
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It is different from the deadly 1997 strain which hit Hong Kong, causing international concern and the territory's tourist arrivals to drop.

However one leading Hong Kong virologist has advised that people suffering from influenza should get a medical check up.

Professor Kennedy Shortridge was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying poultry workers may have been exposed to the new strain before the cull, and that he was uncertain of the impact of that contact.

A goverment spokesman said late Saturday that "up to now" the virus had not spread to humans. Earlier statements said the strain "did not affect human beings."

Buddhist prayers

The mass slaughter led a Buddhist temple to hold a ritual to pacify the souls of the dead birds and to atone for what Buddhists consider the sin of killing.

Hundreds of monks and followers in the Western Monastery chanted prayers while the Reverend Wing Sing prostrated himself in front of a plaque erected for the dead birds.

Buddhist prayers

"The lotus seat of the respectable souls of chickens and birds killed in the avian influenza" outbreak, the plaque read.

"The untimely deaths of the large number of chickens mean much grief is floating around in the air. If it isn't dissipated by the pacifying ritual, natural disasters like rainstorms and flooding might curse Hong Kong," said the 76-year-old head monk.

Necessary decision

Disinfecting operations covering the whole territory are expected to be finished in two weeks and have so far covered only public markets under the supervision of the environment and food department.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said the decision was the only one to be made.

"It was a necessary decision to protect the health of our citizens," he told reporters. "In the short term we need to find out how it happened, why it happened very very precisely."

Secretary Yam raised the possibility that the spread of the virus "may not be farm-based."

She said the government will also be giving "special attention to the transportation process," which will include the inspection of delivery trucks.

Although the government has asked mainland China to halt exports of live birds to the territory, Yam cautioned the media against exaggerating the virus scare, particularly in pinning the blame on poultry imported from the mainland.

Hong Kong consumes around 100,000 fresh chickens a day, with more than 70 percent coming from China.

Stemming the scare

South Korea on Sunday became the latest country to ban chicken imports from Hong Kong. The Philippines and Japan have already imposed such a ban.

Taiwan has stepped up its screening of travelers from Hong Kong and asked chicken farmers to put up nets over their farms to prevent migrant birds from spreading the flu virus.

The H5N1 virus "is not food-borne," said Josephine Wong, assistant information officer of the environment and food department.

"This means that even if a restaurant has chickens, (customers) are still safe," Wong said.

"The virus is not transmitted through dead chickens, only live poultry," she added.

The poultry trade is expected to receive compensation totaling HK$80 million (U.S.$10.26 million) from the government as a result of the slaughter.

The government's next step is to get a "community consensus" on how to deal with the virus, Yam said.

• Hong Kong Government Information Office

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