Whether China is the source of bird flu is becoming the focus of Hong Kong’s investigation of the new virus as the territory seeks to wipe out its chicken population while remaining on good terms with its new sovereign.
Hong Kong officials said they believe the virus could have been brought into the territory by chickens infected elsewhere in China. “It is probable,” said Lessie Wei, director of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department, when asked whether the virus originated in mainland China.
There have already been rumors of the deaths of as many as a million chickens last spring in Guangzhou province, which borders Hong Kong and is the source of most of Hong Kong’s chicken imports. Wei said she had heard many chickens died there last April but a different virus, not dangerous to human beings, was the cause.
In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China had found no cases of the H5N1 virus either among its chickens or its people in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong and is the source of 75 percent of Hong Kong’s chickens. The spokesman, Tang Guoqiang, said a Ministry of Agriculture team is being sent to investigate further. “As of now, we have not received any reports of cases of the bird flu,” Tang said.
Hong Kong is exterminating all its estimated 1.3 million chickens in a bid to eradicate the virus, which has killed four people. Nine more have been confirmed infected, of whom six have recovered, and six others are suspected to be victims of the flu, which produces symptoms similar to common varieties of influenza except that they are more severe.
Hong Kong suspended shipments of Chinese chickens after three crossing the border last week were found to have the flu. Though officials suspect the flu originates in China, they said they cannot confirm the three chickens found with the flu were Chinese because it is difficult to determine chicken origins once they have mingled in markets.
After all the chickens currently in Hong Kong are dead, locations where they had lived will be thoroughly cleaned and then inspected by officials to ensure no trace of the virus remains. Chickens subsequently entering the territory will be checked and certified they are not carrying the virus.
Once the virus has been eradicated and the new checks are implemented, it may become clearer whether Chinese chickens are infected, Wei said. “We can never be 100 percent sure until we have put the new system in place,” she said.
The World Health Organization is also preparing to send a team to Guangdong province Jan. 12 to investigate further whether the virus is present there, the Reuters news agency quoted a WHO official as saying.
Patrols are being stepped up along the border with mainland China to prevent the rise of a black market in smuggled chickens. It could take as long as three weeks before imports of chicken are resumed, officials said.
Under China’s “one country, two systems” promise to leave Hong Kong’s way of life untouched, Hong Kong has retained virtually all the autonomy it enjoyed as a British colony. Border controls have remained in place, and administration of everything except foreign affairs and defense remains in the hands of Hong Kong’s local authorities.
Meanwhile, the chicken slaughter in Hong Kong is turning into a public relations nightmare that is taking longer than expected, scaring away tourists and doing little to quell widespread panic about the virus.
By the end of the day Tuesday, only 750,000, or slightly more than half the targeted chickens, had been killed. Officials cited “unforeseen logistical difficulties” that had forced them to reassess their promise to wipe out all chickens in a day.
The dog catchers, park wardens, street cleaners and other government workers recruited for the operation have no experience of catching and killing chickens and found it was harder than they expected, Wei said.
Also, authorities had not taken into account small groups of chickens in outlying areas or being raised by families. Some farms are in remote areas and a few chicken-killing squads got lost trying to find them. A special chicken hot line was set up Tuesday for citizens to report any sightings of live chickens.
“No chicken will be allowed to walk free anywhere in the territory,” Wei pledged.
No imports of live chickens will be permitted into the territory for the foreseeable future, she added, dashing hopes in Taiwan that it could fill the gap created by the suspension of imports from China a week ago.
It is still not clear whether human beings are catching the disease from other human beings or from eating chicken, from touching it or from some other form of contact with the virus.