01/20/2006, 00.00
HONG KONG

Avian flu: chicken farms to be inspected in Hong Kong

The virus was found in tests on a dead oriental magpie robin. Authorities urge people to remain calm. New human cases reported in Indonesia. Optimism prevails in Turkey.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Inspections of Hong Kong's 145 chicken farms are being stepped up, especially in the Tai Po area. The most stringent inspections will be reserved for eight farms within a 5km radius of Kam Shan Tsuen village, where tests indicate that an oriental magpie robin found dead had the H5N1 virus. The species is native to Hong Kong and large parts of South and East Asia. The Mai Po bird sanctuary is also being monitored.

"It is only one dead wild bird so there is no cause for alarm," said Thomas Sit Hon-chung, acting assistant director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

But angry Tai Po villagers yesterday accused officials of leaving them in the dark—they learnt from TV about the dead bird found in the area last week.

Magpie robins are a common resident species in Hong Kong and can be found in gardens, parks and forests. In Tai Po people buy and sell them and other ornamental birds.

In Hong Kong there have been no human bird flu cases since 1997 when 18 people fell ill, six dying. But H5N1-infected wild birds have been recently been found dead. A heron was found dead at Lok Ma Chau. Three wild birds were found with the virus in 2004, two in 2003 and three in 2002.

To make matters worse, the latest discovery comes at a peak time for live chicken sales ahead of the Lunar New Year which falls on January 29 this year.

This has prompted calls for an immediate ban on chickens at wet markets, but Dr Sit Hon-chung insisted that inspections and testing at chicken farms had not found any abnormal deaths or "abnormal signs of avian flu".

Still, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said "the government has to investigate how the bird got infected by looking into its lifestyle, such as its habits and the kinds of migratory birds it likes to mix with."

Since 1997 Hong Kong authorities have imposed strict controls on markets and poultry imports. In the last few months, restrictions have been tightened following the discovery of more than 30 outbreaks in mainland China.

Indonesia. The four-year-old boy who died last Tuesday in West Java had the bird flu, officials sources confirmed. His sister has also died of the disease whilst his elder sister and father are in the Hasan Sadikin Hospital in Bandung showing its symptoms.

Another man from the village of Sida Mulya Bongos (Indramayu) was hospitalised on Wednesday night. Two other patients who died from the virus came from the same region.

Iraq. Maria Cheng, spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation (WHO), has excluded that the 15-year-old girl who died recently had the bird flu.

Turkey. Things are improving quickly in Turkey according to Cristiana Salvi, WHO spokeswoman. Culling a million birds and new health measures are slowing down if not stopping the virus. (PB)

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