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Experts warn of bird flu risks with Lunar New Year
Updated: 2006-01-12 14:01

When Chinese people gather all over the world to celebrate Lunar New Year at the end of January, chicken will be standard fare on their dining tables.

But experts are warning the jump in demand and the way live chickens are packed densely in crates, moved across borders and slaughtered is a sure recipe for trouble and could mean more outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 bird flu in birds and humans.

"We are afraid of the risks, with more imports, the risks of infected chickens coming in 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.

While the virus remains relatively hard for people to catch and is spread almost exclusively through contact with birds, scientists fear it could mutate into a strain that could pass easily among people and set off a pandemic, killing millions.

In East Asia, 76 people have died of bird flu since 2003. The virus spread recently to Turkey, killing two children and experts have warned that it might now invade neighbouring countries.

On Wednesday, Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, said the number of outbreaks will increase with the Lunar New Year festival and urged people to practice good hygiene.

"Based upon past experience, approaching the Lunar calendar New Year, the number of cases will increase," Omi said. "It is very important for people to apply basic personal hygiene practices ... they should never eat dying or sick poultry."


China's top veterinarian, Jia Youling, warned in December that the country had to be on its guard over the festive season, when there will be greater consumption of poultry and millions of people will be travelling as they return to their home towns.
Beijing authorities have been assuring people that it is safe to eat properly slaughered birds, though a ban on the sale of live poultry has not been lifted.
"It's still temporarily not allowed, as bird flu has not yet past, and the slightest nick of the skin during slaughter could be dangerous," Beijing city's agricultural chief Lei Decai was quoted as saying in state media this month.

In Hong Kong, where the virus made its first known jump to humans in 1997 and killed six people, authorities are considering whether to lift the daily import cap of 30,000 live chickens, which are sourced from registered farms in mainland China.

In Vietnam, where the festival is celebrated, sales of "clean poultry", or birds free of bird flu, have gone up. Sales were banned for about three months after a man died of infection from the H5N1 virus last October, the country's 42nd fatality since 2003.

Supply is limited, with several authorised slaughter houses in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City turning out just 80,000 birds a day for the population of 13 million people in both cities.

But experts have warned of poultry with fake inspection stamps. "Consumers should protect themselves by only buying the right poultry which has passed food inspection," said Hoang Thuy Long, deputy head of the anti-bird flu steering committee.

The heightened awareness and controls, however, have not gone down well with the badly affected poultry industry.

Chui Ming-tuen of the Hong Kong Poultry Wholesale Association wants the daily import cap of 30,000 chickens to be increased for a week before the Lunar New Year. He said live chicken imports from China were safe as they were vaccinated.

"The government should stop listening to the so-called experts who are just frightening people. They are totally irresponsible ... if there is no chicken for every family, I will feel so sad. Chickens are simply a necessity," Chui said.

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