Jul 3, 2008

World - A game of chicken

The government’s caution arouses suspicions about what it knows
ALMOST as long as it has had people, Hong Kong has had booths selling squawking live chickens. They are treasured by locals who spurn frozen meat, finding it tasteless. But after the latest in a series of outbreaks of avian influenza, the government has offered HK$1 billion ($128m) to put the whole business out of its misery. That is the cost of a plan unveiled on June 20th to buy back all the licences allowing live chickens to be sold.
The latest bout of bird flu was first detected in four wet markets in Hong Kong on June 11th. Since then there has been no panic. But fear has advanced in baby steps. The government at once ordered a cull of 3,500 birds being held for sale, and banned imports of live chickens from China for 21 days. The news reached the territory’s elite when exclusive restaurants had to pull chicken from their menus.

Then came reports of 4,000 ducks dying at a Guangdong farm, having contracted, it was later confirmed, the H5N1 avian-flu virus. Another 17,000 birds were killed as a precaution and Hong Kong blocked imports of all birds raised within 13km (eight miles) of the affected farm.
The source of the original infection remains a mystery. So the government decided to preclude future problems with its drastic decision to end the live-chicken trade. The traders, many from families that have used the same stalls for generations, have rejected the offer of compensation for their licences as mean and misguided. They have threatened to release live poultry on to the streets. The government is continuing to negotiate with them. Public opinion on the issue is hard to gauge: as in any market, fear is battling greed, and in this case gluttony.
The ban on chickens imported from China expires on July 2nd. But they will have to be sold the day they are imported and those unbought will be slaughtered. Yet, amid all the carnage, questions remain about the seriousness of the outbreak. Sceptics wonder if it is merely another of many efforts to ensure that nothing, particularly an outbreak of disease, can cast a shadow on the Beijing Olympics in August. Others, however, point to the strength of the government’s response, and ask if there is more to it. They recall the epidemic in 2003 of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed hundreds of people before disappearing as mysteriously as it had arrived.
So some fear that the government knows more than it is letting on, particularly about the presence of avian flu in southern China, where health inspectors and the press both face constraints. Hong Kong insists all imports from China must come from specially licensed farms, but reporters from Next, a local magazine, discovered the rules being circumvented.
Since 1997, when 18 people were infected with bird flu and six died, there have been numerous outbreaks. Avian flu is not only particularly virulent; it also has the rare capacity to cross barriers between species. But it is hard to transmit. Well-cooked chicken is safe. In the past, it has been relayed through handling and poor sanitation, both issues of concern in Hong Kong. Local television stations have begun running public-service advertisements urging people to wash their hands and to wear masks if they suffer flu-like symptoms.
The second precaution seems redundant; bird flu has not yet spread from one person to another. But it underscores the bigger fear: that the disease might mutate and become broadly infectious. Given the frequency with which the disease crops up in Hong Kong, the government may be justified in not taking any chances

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