A 60-year-old woman hospitalized with suspected “bird flu” died Tuesday, the fourth apparent fatality from the mysterious avian virus. Hong Kong health authorities suspended all imports of chicken from mainland China.
A government statement said Tuesday night that the woman’s death, shortly after being admitted to a hospital with the suspect virus, still was being attributed officially to pneumonia.
The virus, which appeared in humans for the first time this year, has affected children as young as 2, a teenager who died and adults of various ages. One victim in critical condition is a Philippine domestic worker who is believed to have been preparing a chicken for a family meal. Only two of the 12 persons who have contracted the disease have been treated successfully and released from hospitals.
“This is a new illness, a new virus,” said Paul Saw, the deputy health director. “There is still very little we know about the virus.”
The suspension of imports from Hong Kong’s biggest poultry supplier, which takes effect at midnight Tuesday, was described as a temporary measure to give officials time to set up a strict system of controls for monitoring Chinese-origin poultry, including a rapid blood test for imported birds and a five-day holding period before the chickens can be sold at local markets.
Hong Kong officials who announced the halt in chicken imports said the suspension had been agreed to by Chinese authorities. Leslie Sims, the senior veterinary officer with the agriculture and fisheries department, said the move was intended to “restore confidence to the local market and to ensure that only uninfected birds can be imported to Hong Kong.”
China is widely suspected to be the source of the mysterious influenza known as H5N1, popularly called “bird flu” because it originally was limited to birds, including poultry. But in China’s first known comment on this growing public health crisis, a report on the state-run China Central Television said Tuesday that border inspectors in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, found no traces of the virus in any Hong Kong-bound birds.
Officials of Hong Kong’s health and agriculture departments told reporters Tuesday that the disease was most likely contracted from direct exposure to infected chicken or chicken feces. Veterinarian Sims said the virus had been found in two swabs of chicken droppings collected from market stalls 10 days ago and also from a dead bird at a wholesale market.
In the first case, Sims said, an entire batch of chickens was destroyed with the permission of the stall owner. The market was scheduled to be cleaned Tuesday.
The officials said they still have not determined whether humans can pass the disease to each other. But jittery Hong Kong residents are taking few chances; a young woman office worker said she holds her breath when she hears someone coughing on the bus and is searching stores for a surgical mask.
Chicken is a popular part of Hong Kong meals, particularly in this season of the winter solstice, when poultry is a part of the traditional Chinese celebration. However, since the outbreak of “bird flu,” Hong Kong residents have been treating poultry like the plague. Chicken sales have plummeted, down as much as 70 percent by some estimates, and some restaurants have taken to assuring customers that their chicken comes from Australia or the United States.