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HK may restrict bird slaughter to combat flu
Updated: 2004-11-29 15:11

Hong Kong said on Monday it may ban shopkeepers slaughtering poultry after world health experts issued strong warnings that the deadly bird flu virus may trigger the next pandemic.

Hong Kong scientists have been fighting to end the widespread practice of killing live chickens in markets since 1997, when the H5N1 virus first spread to humans and killed six people in the territory.

But strong opposition from the poultry industry has prevented the government from stopping stall holders from selling live chickens and ducks and slaughtering them in front of customers.

The virus emerged again in Asia this year, killing 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam and decimating poultry flocks.

Health Minister York Chow said the government would next month announce new steps to combat the virus.

A food department spokeswoman said the government might set up a central abattoir or restrict slaughtering to a few areas.

"The broad direction for the government is to separate humans from chickens. And the announcement next month will be about how we are going to do that," she said.

Hong Kong people like their food fresh and often shop in markets where they can pick the birds they want and have them killed on the spot. Many of the chickens are from mainland China.

Almost all the human bird flu victims were infected after coming into contact with sick chickens.

With the illness now endemic in poultry farms, experts fear it will only be a matter of time before the disease mutates into a form that can leap between humans and sweep through populations with no immunity.

Last week, experts at the World Health Organization warned that H5N1 would probably unleash the world's next flu pandemic and infect up to 30 percent of the world's population.

At least two U.S. companies are working on a vaccine against H5N1, but Chow said these may not match a pandemic strain that would be easily transmissable between humans.

"It's hard to make a vaccine with a new disease ... because the virus will change and the vaccine may not match one that is (transmissable from) human to human," the minister said in an interview with government-funded Radio and Television Hong Kong.

"Vaccines only offer 5 percent protection going by past pandemics ... we can't rely totally on vaccines."

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