Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) The Lunar New Year, which this year will fall on January 29, is a time for the Chinese to visit their ancestral home. Traditionally, poultry is served on the table. But as more and more people are on the move and poultry sales increase, chances of the avian or bird flu spreading rise as well.
"[W]ith more imports, the risks of infected chickens coming in [in Hong Kong] will be greater. And if that happens, the risks of human beings getting infected will go up," said Leo Poon, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.
The Chinese have a penchant for cooking and consuming freshly slaughtered chickens, but that age-old habit requires them to shop at neighbourhood markets where buyers and sellers are exposed to poultry in often unsanitary conditions.
Eating well-cooked chicken poses no danger but slaughtering and handling infected chickens does.
"Based upon past experience, approaching the Lunar calendar New Year, the number of cases will increase," said Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific.
"It is very important for people to apply basic personal hygiene practices. . . . They should never eat dying or sick poultry," he added.
The danger is compounded by the multitudes who will be visiting their ancestral homes. For tens of millions of migrant workers this will be the only time in the year that they will go back home.
In Beijing and other cities, the sale of live poultry was banned months ago.
Sales are "still temporarily not allowed, as bird flu has not yet past," Beijing city's Agriculture Chief Lei Decai.
In Hong Kong, there is daily import cap of 30,000 live chickens from registered farms in mainland China, but the authorities are considering whether to lift it or not for the holiday.
There should be a chicken for every family, said Chui Ming-tuen, of the Hong Kong Poultry Wholesale Association.
In Hong Kong, the virus made its first known jump to humans in 1997 when it killed six people. Since then no other cases have been reported.
The danger is even greater in Vietnam, which also celebrates the Lunar New Year. Poultry sales were banned back in October after a man died bringing the total bird flu-related death toll in the country to 42.
Sales are now permitted but under tight controls. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City some 80,000 birds are slaughtered per day under strict conditions, but the two cities have a combined population of 13 million people.
Health authorities have warned the public to buy birds checked by inspectors but have also alerted them about poultry with fake inspection stamps. (PB)