Hong Kong to cull 80,000 chickens after H5 outbreak

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong health authorities raised the city’s avian flu alert to “serious” on Tuesday after some chickens at a farm were confirmed to have the H5 birdflu virus, prompting the cull of 80,000 chickens.

The H5 birdflu strain is a low pathogenic avian influenza. Experts fear the more deadly H5N1 strain, which remains mainly an animal disease but has infected humans, could mutate to a form that spreads easily among people.

Hong Kong health authorities did not rule out the possibility the virus might be H5N1, pending further tests.

The city’s Health Secretary York Chow said the affected farm was in Hong Kong’s northeastern Yuen Long district near the border with China, which reported the unusual deaths of 60 chickens on Monday.

“After a series of tests, we have confirmed this morning that the chickens died from the H5 virus,” Chow told reporters, adding three dead chickens were tested and 20 feces samples were taken.

Officers clad in masks, white medical suits and black rubber gloves began the mass culling of some 80,000 birds at the farm on Tuesday afternoon, and were shown stuffing piles of chicken carcasses into black bin bags.

Chickens at a second nearby farm would also be culled.

The scenes were reminiscent of previous mass cullings in 1997 and 2001, when the H5N1 virus prompted the slaughter of over one million birds each time. In the 1997 outbreak, six people died.

“The deaths (of the chickens) weren’t on a mass scale like before but more scattered deaths. So far, not that many died,” said Wong Yi-chuen, who worked at one of the stricken farms.

A precautionary three-week ban on poultry imports was also imposed to contain any potential spread of the virus.

“We will ban all the outlets of all chickens from our farms for 21 days and also suspend all the imports of chicken and poultry including birds for the next 21 days,” Chow added.

All 80,000 chickens within a 3 km radius of the farms would be destroyed, along with some birds at a wholesale market, he added.

While Chow said the last birdflu outbreak at a Hong Kong farm occurred in early 2003, in June authorities found H5N1 at a poultry stall in one of the city’s many wet markets which led to the culling of 2,700 birds.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok and James Pomfret in Hong Kong)

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