Hong Kong to reduce chicken population - 7 March, 2006 - News

Hong Kong will reduce by a third its local chicken population, control imports of live birds and limit new licenses for poultry farms amid bird flu jitters following a new human death from the disease in mainland China , officials said Tuesday. Hong Kong health officials have introduced new measures to prevent a bird flu outbreak in the territory since a new fatal human infection from the H5N1 strain of the disease was discovered in China 's southern Guangdong province.

Mainland China has suspended the supply of live poultry, including newborn chicks, and pet birds to Hong Kong for three weeks as a preventive measure. Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department spokesman Donald Lam said the government would reduce Hong Kong 's chicken population to 2 million from 2.8 million by May and will start capping the number of licenses issued for chicken farms.

"Reducing the local chicken population could lower the risk of an avian influenza outbreak and promptly control its spread if an outbreak occurred," the department said in a statement. Hong Kong has 139 chicken farms and the current stock of chickens could last for three months, the government said.

Lam said the government will review the decision to ban imports of newborn chicks, aimed at helping farms gradually reduce their stocks, in two weeks to see if an extension is needed.

Hong Kong Health Secretary Dr. York Chow expressed concern about the proximity of the recent Chinese case, the ninth fatality among 15 reported human bird flu infections in the mainland since October. It was also worrying that the 32-year-old man, an urban dweller, had contracted the disease despite Guangdong 's stringent bird flu control measures, he said.

"His only exposure is in the wet markets, which have poultry supposedly safe for consumption and safe for the public," Chow said. Mainland authorities are investigating the case "to see whether there's any change of the virus, any problem with the vaccine, or any other factors in the wet market that will contribute to this infection," he said.

Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, spokeswoman of the World Health Organization's China office, said even vaccinated chickens in the market could carry the H5N1 virus. "Although they may not be excreting as much virus as unvaccinated poultry, they may still be carrying the virus .. without falling sick or showing symptoms of illness," she said.

"It is of concern because there are no clear warning signs ... to indicate that poultry could be infected," she said. Hong Kong has not reported any human infections since early 2003, but has kept a close eye on outbreaks in neighboring mainland provinces because of the busy human and poultry traffic between them.

The H5N1 virus first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, when it jumped to humans and killed six people, prompting the government to slaughter the entire poultry population of about 1.5 million birds at that time, reports the AP.