In a drastic move motivated partly by science and partly by public relations, the Hong Kong government put into motion this morning plans to kill every chicken in the territory - more than 1.2 million - to combat a new and sometimes deadly strain of flu.
The so-called “bird flu,” which scientists believe generally is contracted from chickens carrying the virus, has left four people here dead and at least eight more seriously ill and has prompted hundreds of worried Hong Kongers to rush to hospitals at the first sign of a fever. It also has sent chicken sales plummeting and damaged the territory’s already struggling tourist industry, even though the World Health Organization has said that it is safe to travel here.
To strike back, officials said Sunday a small army of government workers will fan out across the territory today to collect all of the birds from 160 chicken farms, more than 1,000 chicken wholesalers and retail chicken stalls. The birds either will be killed by market owners or carted away by local authorities to be killed with poisonous gas.
Their bodies then will be disinfected, wrapped in plastic and taken to landfills. Geese, ducks and other fowl that have been in close contact with the chickens also will be slaughtered.
Beginning today, “we will start destroying all the chickens in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Island and the New Territories,” Steven Ip, secretary for economic services, told reporters, referring to the three regions that make up Hong Kong.
And so, at 8 a.m. today, after receiving brief instructions from a blue-uniformed poultry inspector, the four workers at the outdoor store called Fai Chai Lam Cheung Kai set out to complete the morning’s grim task. Working with skilled bare hands, the workers lifted dozens of chickens, ducks, pigeons and quail out of stacked metal cages, arched back each bird’s neck, and deftly pulled a sharp knife over the veins and arteries. As blood oozed forth, they tossed the birds - a few with wings still flapping - into several large plastic garbage bins. The inspector said he would return later with disinfectant and plastic bags.
“We knew this would happen sooner or later, and there’s good and bad to it,” said Tam, the store’s owner, as he slit a bird’s neck. “Hopefully it will calm people’s fears so business will pick up. But it will take three months to replace all my chickens, and how will I pay rent until then?”
Tam, who refused to give his full name, said his business had fallen by 90 percent in the last month. The government has promised him $3.87 for each chicken, but he normally sells them for twice as much.
This very public extermination campaign is intended to rid Hong Kong of the enigmatic bird-flu virus, also known as A(H5N1) influenza, which first appeared as a public health problem in May, when a 3-year-old boy died of the disease.
Reports of new cases in humans and scattered deaths of birds at chicken farms and markets accelerated this month. And last week, the territory’s Agriculture Department decided to suspend Hong Kong’s usual daily import of 75,000 live chickens from mainland China because scientists suspected that it was the source of the infected birds. Mainland officials who are cooperating say they have found no evidence of the infection.
Chickens imported from mainland China are sometimes kept in markets for a number of days before they make their way to the stalls where they are bought, often live, then killed and eaten by consumers.
Hong Kong officials said they felt forced to proceed with the mass slaughter after learning late Saturday night that, despite previous measures, chickens at a farm in Yuen Long in the New Territories had tested positive for the virus, and that a large number of chickens had died at the Cheung Sha Wan poultry wholesale market in Kowloon, possibly from the virus.
The Hong Kong Health Department has advised residents to handle poultry and eggs with care, cooking them thoroughly, although they say that chickens infected with the virus cannot lay eggs.
Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said on Sunday that the organization, which has been called in to advise the Hong Kong government, supports the plan to kill the chickens. She said that the rare outbreaks of bird flu in the United States have been addressed by killing flocks, but added that she was “not aware of anything on this scale.”
Scientists have long known that the virus could be fatal to chickens but had not thought it capable of infecting or harming humans - until the deaths this year in Hong Kong. Scientists say that any time a new virus crosses over into humans, it is cause for concern, because people would, in theory, have no natural immunity to the disease. And the concern is even greater when the event occurs in southern China, the source of many of the world’s great influenza epidemics.
For the last few weeks, virologists from around the world have been streaming into Hong Kong to help local health officials identify new cases as well as to study how the virus infects humans and its potential for spread. They are particularly interested in whether the virus can be transmitted from person to person.
Although the number of known cases is small, the front pages of Hong Kong’s newspapers have been playing up the latest tallies: currently 12 confirmed and 8 suspected cases.