Albion Monitor /News

Doubts That Chicken Slaughter Will Stop Flu

by Yojana Sharma

on the flu virus
(IPS) HONG KONG -- More than 1.4 million chickens and fowl have been slaughtered since Hong Kong's mass culling operation last month to stop the "bird flu" from becoming an epidemic, but health experts here say it is far from certain that such drastic action can contain the virus.

Poultry workers, farmers and health experts have criticized the Hong Kong government for suggesting last week that chicken will be back in the market within a month -- the time officials are insisting it will take to eradicate the H5N1 virus thought to have jumped from chickens to humans.

"It's unrealistic," said medical doctor Huang Chen-ya of Hong Kong's Democratic Party. "How can they be sure?"

"Once the virus is in the human population, there is little point in the mass slaughter of birds"
The virus has left four people dead in Hong Kong, and a number have also recovered. As of last weekend, the number of confirmed human cases of the flu stood at 16. Fears of a further spread of the disease prompted authorities to embark on the mass slaughter of fowl in late December.

The Democrats have accused the government of being complacent for too long and then jumping in with a "botched up panic measure which convinced few inside or outside Hong Kong."

Just two weeks after the Hong Kong government released a statement entitled "avian flu not yet a health problem", the governments of Philippines and Thailand indicated they may test visitors from Hong Kong. This could well signal their belief that the mass culling program may not be enough to contain the flu.

Taiwanese and other Asian tourists are canceling cheap flights to Hong Kong in the wake of the slaughter. South Africa and the United Arab Emirates are already banning poultry imports from Hong Kong and China, although Hong Kong does not export poultry.

Past experience has shown that culling and import bans may not be enough.

Experts note that the United States has been hit twice by bird flu viruses -- though not the same strain as the current Hong Kong flu -- in the last 25 years. These had required the mass slaughter of chickens.

In one case the virus resurfaced one year later in a more virulent mutation and required a second culling operation, in all involving 17 million birds.

Two years ago, Mexico was also affected by avian flu that affected its 26 million poultry population. Despite measures to contain it, the flu returned a year later.

In the Mexican and American cases, the flu was confined to fowl and did not require the confidence-building measures that Hong Kong has faced in preventing a human epidemic.

Nonetheless, experts point out that the chicken slaughter in Hong Kong only occurred when the first human death from bird flu was pinpointed in May 1997, while it was well known here that flu was a common occurrence among birds.

"With hindsight, bird slaughter should have happened long before. Once the virus is in the human population, there is little point in the mass slaughter of birds," said one health expert.

There had been outbreaks of H5N1 in local Hong Kong chicken markets in late October and early November, a few weeks before a cluster of bird flu cases were detected in humans but several months after the first H5N1 death had occurred in a five year-old boy in May.

But in November, director of health Margaret Chan was still assuring Hong Kong people that it was safe to consume poultry and saying she had been eating chicken every day.

"Who knows if it will actually contain the disease?"
Chicken farmers in China say an epidemic of flu among their poultry killed almost a third of their stock in 1996. And there have been outbreaks earlier last year. Guangdong province supplied 75,000 chickens a day to Hong Kong before the ban on fowl imports -- three quarters of the poultry on sale in Hong Kong.

Yet Xu Jiafu, a farmer who raises 10,000 chickens across the border from Hong Kong, told a local newspaper last week: "No officer has come to tell us about the disease, we only heard about it from Hong Kong television."

There is still little monitoring of the situation over the border in China, where the flu is thought to have originated. The mixing of chickens from China with those on local farms was "the main factor" in the outbreak, says senior agriculture department official Liu Ken Wei.

Mainland imports were only banned on Dec. 24, although they were being "controlled" for some weeks before that and officials were allowing only healthy birds into Hong Kong.

Red tape appears to have held up missions by World Health Organization (WHO) officials to farms in China to conduct proper studies on H5N1, but this has been played down by officials anxious not to antagonize the Chinese authorities.

Said David Hyman, director of WHO's communicable diseases division: "It's always easy to blame a disease on your neighbor and by closing your door you think you've solved the problem."

Hospitals across the border have said they have seen no cases of bird flu, and Chinese officials have made repeated statements saying the H5N1 virus has not been found on the mainland.

But one Hong Kong health official who did not want to be quoted said drily: "It is a complete mystery why there have been no reports of bird flu from the mainland."

Apart from the China factor, there are other concerns, not least the hasty way in which the chicken cull was finally carried out here.

Said Tsang Yok-sing, head of the Hong Kong's DAB party: "In a couple of days after the initial killings, the public saw the following scenes on television: chicken farms with hundreds of poultry alive and cackling."

Likewise, there were "uncollected bags of rotting fowls left in the open, mutilated chicken carcasses scavenged by dogs and survivors of the massacre emerging from among the dead bodies of their former companions and roaming the countryside free," he added.

Despite the mass slaughter, the agriculture department says another 90,000 chickens remain to be destroyed and 70,000 carcasses are being disposed of. Although ducks, geese and other birds were included, their slaughter was not as systematic as the chicken cull.

Because control studies since May had been concentrating on the flu's ability to jump from chickens to humans, control studies had not been carried out on how the flu is transmitted between chickens or whether it can be transmitted from chickens to other fowl, according to Barbara Reynolds of the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S.

The success of the chicken cull will depend on this information. "We know this virus infects other birds, but whether or not other birds are infected, we don't know," said the WHO's Hyman.

With so many uncertainties and so many mistakes made along the way, some say the culling operation was not so much a health measure as a confidence exercise to show that Hong Kong is quick to react forcefully to any crisis that could impact on the rest of the world.

But one official lamented: "So far the effect of the chicken cull is to bring the flu to the attention of the public elsewhere in the world and made it seem more serious than it is. Who knows if it will actually contain the disease?"

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Albion Monitor January 12, 1998 (

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