Outdoor markets resounded with the squawks of dying chickens today as Hong Kong began the gruesome task of exterminating its poultry in a bid to halt the spread of a deadly bird flu virus.
By day’s end, an estimated 250,000 chickens had been gassed or killed with a knife to the throat, out of a total of 1.2 million birds that will eventually die. Their disinfected carcasses are being transported to specially designated landfills.
Chicken was removed from the menus of most local restaurants as Hong Kong, one of the world’s biggest consumers of chicken, faced a chicken-free diet for an indefinite future.
“If it has got two legs, it’s off the menu,” said the waiter at one local eatery, where pigeons and ducks were also not being served. Though there is no evidence ducks have caught the flu, all ducks and geese found living near chickens were killed, though pigeons were spared.
The poultry slaughter continued through the night, as government workers in special protective clothing fanned out across the territory to eliminate the hundreds of thousands of chickens living on farms, in remote areas and on dozens of outlying islands.
Chickens kept by families and even chickens being raised by schools for student projects are being killed to eliminate all possible sources of the virus from the territory by Wednesday. The H5N1 influenza virus has killed four people since May, and as many as 16 others have been infected.
“The central question surrounding the spread of bird flu has still not been answered: Where does it come from?” commented the South China Morning Post in a rare front-page editorial. “Until we know the answer, the killing of more than a million birds cannot hope to quell the public’s understandable fears.”
Also not known is whether human beings can catch bird flu from other human beings. If they can, the extermination of chickens presumably would not wipe out the virus. But the small number of human cases so far suggests this flu will not reach the epidemic scale of the Hong Kong flu of 1968, which killed 46,000 people worldwide.
Chicken is regarded as a staple of Cantonese cuisine, with no part of the bird considered too bony, grisly or disgusting to eat.
Chicken consumption had increased over the past year as residents fearful of catching mad cow disease stopped eating beef, officials said. Now, people are switching to pork and seafood.
Chicken vendors said they supported the government’s decision to kill all the chickens because they couldn’t sell their birds and they will receive $3.85 from the government for each chicken slaughtered.