Hong Kong celebrates winter solstice today without fresh chickens in the feast marking the occasion after officials culled tens of thousands of birds and banned the sale and import of live poultry to prevent a bird flu outbreak.
The government slaughtered a total of 19,451 birds, including more than 15,000 chickens, yesterday after the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus was found in a chicken carcass at a wholesale market.
“It is unfortunate that an avian influenza case is detected before the winter solstice,” Secretary for Food and Health York Chow said. “I understand that it will cause inconvenience to the public. However, to safeguard public health, we need to adopt decisive and effective measures to prevent and control the spread of the virus.”
Hong Kong takes a tough line on the highly pathogenic strain of flu virus, first recorded in humans in the city in 1997 and which has since spread through Asia, Europe and Africa, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds and killing more than half of the people that caught it. The city of 7 million people was also hit by an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003 in which 299 people died.
The Cheung Sha Wan Temporary Wholesale Poultry Market, where the carcass was found, was disinfected and will be closed until Jan. 12, the government said in a statement yesterday evening. The city’s 30 chicken farms were tested, with all samples free of avian influenza, according to the statement. The Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department will conduct further testing.
Avian flu is a serious public health concern with the potential to cause a deadly pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Since 2003, more than 500 people have been infected with the H5N1 strain worldwide and about 60 percent have died, according to the Atlanta-based agency.
Public hospitals in the city activated their “serious” response level and enhanced surveillance after the government discovered the H5N1-infected chicken carcass at the Cheung Sha Wan market, in the western part of Kowloon. It wasn’t clear whether the chicken was local or imported, Chow said.
The Department of Health is testing workers at the market, farmers and other people who may have come into contact with the birds, according to a separate statement yesterday. So far no human H5N1 infections have been discovered, it said.
“Hong Kong has the best H5N1 contingency plan to be found in any part of the world,” said Yuen Kwok-yung, chairman of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong’s department of microbiology. “We should not panic. Every winter there is increased H5N1 activity in poultry and migratory birds.”
During the 2009 swine flu scare, Hong Kong quarantined almost 400 people in a downtown hotel who may have come into contact with a Mexican visitor confirmed as having caught the flu strain.
No live ducks or geese are sold in Hong Kong, said Sally Kong, a government spokeswoman. Chow said the government will pay compensation of HK$30 for each chicken destroyed.
In 1997, the government ordered all poultry in Hong Kong to be culled. Many families in rural areas kept chickens in back-yard wood-and-wire hutches that can still be seen lying empty and rusting in villages across the territory. Ducks, geese and pigeons are also widely eaten in Hong Kong.