Avian flu panic has Hong Kong bureaucrats choking chickens

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1998:

HONG KONG––The Hong Kong
Directorate of Education on January 6 advised
teachers and principals at more than 2,000
kindergartens, primary schools, and secondary
schools to watch for signs of emotional distress
in children who witnessed the panic-stricken
first-days-of-the-year massacre of more than 1.5
million chickens and other domestic fowl, and
to refer traumatized youngsters to counsellors.
“Try to help them express their feelings
and listen with empathy,” the bulletin said.
Explained senior Hong Kong education
officer Tony Fat-yuen to Shirley Kwok of
the South China Morning Post, “They have
been taught to love animals and birds, but now
the government slaughters all the chickens,
some their pets.”

The shock went beyond children.
The chicken massacre was just the kind of
backward, brutal over-reaction that Hong Kong
has feared since rule of the former British
colony reverted to China in July 1997.
Epidemiologists worldwide a r e a n xious
about the implications of the leap of a previously
unknown influenza directly from poultry
to humans in Hong Kong.
The first known case killed a threeyear-old
boy on May 21, 1997. In August,
first Dutch and then American and British laboratories
confirmed from tissue samples that the
influenza strain involved had apparently infected
the boy without having a previous mammalian
host. The strain was named AH5N1.
Southern China has long been recognized
as the original source of most flu strains,
which typically pass from waterfowl to pigs,
and then to humans. The south Chinese climate,
paddy cultivation methods mingling
humans with both waterfowl and pigs, and
crowded living conditions often combine to create
paths of transmission for any strain that
might be at large. AH5N1, however, was the
first recognized instance of any influenza going
directly from birds to humans.
The novelty of the finding provoked
headlines worldwide.
Yet even in Hong Kong the known
cases have hit only the young and aged. At the
ANIMAL PEOPLE deadline, no one between
the ages of 19 and 54 was known to have been
infected. Most cases were in young children,
who are most susceptible to all respiratory
viruses because they haven’t yet acquired the
adult range of immunities.
AH5N1 has a relatively slow sevenday
incubation period. Like most flus, it might
have been endemic to particular bird species for
centuries, crossing over into people only under
especially favorable circumstances for it, and
might have been detected now by fluke: the
doctors attending the three-year-old’s death
were not satisfied with easy answers.
For all these reasons the 15,000-plus
public health experts worldwide who monitor
emerging diseases via the Centers for Disease

Control’s ProMed-AHEAD electronic
bulletin board have been virtually
unanimous in skepticism that
AH5N1 has any chance of devastating
the world like the swine flu of
1918, the spectre raised by much
media coverage.
Just 21 cases of AH5N1,
resulting in five deaths, have been
detected since intensive surveillance
began. Most have been found only
b e c a u s e of the special surveillance.
Previous victims might have died
without anyone realizing there was
anything unique other than severity
about the flu that killed them. Only
the first known victim had direct
contact with birds. Of hundreds of
poultry workers tested, reportedly
none showed evidence of exposure.
There has not been any
unusual surge of flu cases in Hong
Kong, of any kind––just of anxiety.
Serious epidemiological
concern is not with stopping
AH5N1, per se, but rather with
learning to recognize and treat it ,
developing a vaccine to prevent it,
and understanding it well enough to
be ready if and when a more virulent
influenza follows the same path.
Politics & greed
From that perspective,
animal control Beijing-style killed
1.5 million clues––and created a far
deadlier health crisis, as roving
dogs, cats, rats, and some chickens
who survived hasty gassing or throttling
tore open the plastic bags that
were supposed to safely hold their
remains, and strewed rotting meat
all over Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, as the killing
ended with the mop-up slaughter of
about 70,000 chickens whose presence
eluded officials for several
days, scientific investigators reported
that the virus probably entered
chickens from ducks and geese,
who seem to be immune carriers.
Rumors erupted that after
ordering 2,200 civil servants to
choke chickens for three days, a job
few had ever done before, Beijing
would order duck, goose, rat, cat,
and dog purges, like those in
Beijing and other Chinese cities
which have appalled the world every
few years since 1948, when the late
dictator Mao Tse Tung began blaming
animals for famines caused by
his economic policies.
Beijing in particular has
been on an apparent kill-the-dogs,
kill-the-rats treadmill for 50 years,
as killing either species enables the
other to proliferate.
Indeed the Hong Kong
government did advise civil servants
to stand by for duck-choking, if
blood tests underway as A N I M A L
PEOPLE went to press showed any
Hong Kong ducks were infected.
Reported London Sunday
T e l e g r a p h correspondent Matt Frei
on January 4, “Suspicion has arisen
that the Hong Kong government has
been more concerned with not
offending its masters than with protecting
the public. Experts from the
World Health Organization suspect
that the source of the virus are the
huge poultry farms of southern
China. One WHO official told a
Taiwanese newspaper that 1.5 million
chickens died of the so-called
bird flu in Guandong province, bordering
Hong Kong,” in February
1997. Other sources mentioned a
human victim.
Reporters who visited
Guandong to get details found some
poultry workers willing to talk––
until police shut them up. Owners
and managers of poultry facilities
denied there had been an epidemic.
As China both paid Hong
Kong poultry farmers for their losses
and imposed new husbandry rules
that would keep many from returning
to the business, it was clear that
Guangdong producers saw AH5N1
as a chance to grab the Hong Kong
market––and Beijing seemed cooperative,
as the government-run
China Daily reported on January 5
that no sign of the Hong Kong avian
flu had appeared in 1,087 blood
samples from Guandong fowl.
Used to full freedom of
expression, Hong Kong citizens and
media meanwhile lambasted their
administrators and those of Beijing
in terms much stronger than moved
Chinese leaders still in power to kill
an estimated 5,000 dissidents at
Tianenmen Square in June 1989.
Not a main target, Hong
Kong agriculture and fisheries director
Lessie Wei Chui Kit-yee offered
to resign to ease the atmosphere.
Reality check
On December 31, 1997,
EnviroWatch investigator Carroll
Cox faxed to ANIMAL PEOPLE
documentation that the migration
paths of at least 15 waterfowl
species native to the U.S. converge
in the Arctic each summer with
those of species native to southern
China. Thus any virus common to
southern China waterfowl now or
ever is probably already here.
posted that likelihood to ProMedAHEAD,
health authorities in at
least four nations began poring over
field guides and ornithological studies,
looking for the possible missing
link: a water bird with normally low
likelihood of human contact, who
might have reached south China in
February 1997 just long enough to
introduce an unknown flu virus.
This one, though deadly
to some young victims, isn’t likely
to start a pandemic. But the flu
virus that might, when one appears,
could as easily come to American
tables via waterfowl hunters as
through human commerce with
southern China.

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