World

Stalking a killer virus

Scientists are racing to prevent a dangerous epidemic of 'bird flu'

TOM FENNELL January 12 1998
World

Stalking a killer virus

Scientists are racing to prevent a dangerous epidemic of 'bird flu'

TOM FENNELL January 12 1998

Stalking a killer virus

Scientists are racing to prevent a dangerous epidemic of 'bird flu'

TOM FENNELL

BARRY MAGGS

World

The health officials descended on the bustling outdoor market in Hong Kong’s Mongkok district wearing protective suits and white surgical masks. As they looked on, poultry vendors deftly slit the throats of each of their chickens, ducks and quail and tossed them, still squirming, into green garbage bags. Authorities repeated the bloody ritual at farms and markets across Hong Kong last week, laboring desperately to stamp out a deadly “bird flu” virus by killing every bird that was being sold for food in the territory—including 1.3 million chickens and more than 100,000 ducks. Health officials feared that the virus, which by last week had infected 16 people and killed four of them, was beginning to spread among humans and could trigger a flu epidemic as deadly as the one that killed 21 million people around the world in 1918. “I’m scared,” admitted Anne Cheung, a Hong Kong housewife. “I won’t serve chicken even if comes from another country.”

As the poultry slaughter continued, thousands of frightened people crowded into 14 emergency clinics that Hong Kong authorities had set up to treat people who believed that they might have contracted the deadly virus, which is known to scientists as H5N1. Adding to their panic, health-care workers started testing dogs and rats that were suspected of eating the confiscated birds after their carcasses were dumped in landfills. Fear also spread beyond Hong Kong. Thousands of tourists who had planned to visit the former British colony cancelled airline and hotel reservations during the holidays, determined not to take any chances.

And as rumors persisted that hundreds of people had contracted the virus, borders around the world were rapidly closed to exports of chicken from China—which is believed to be the source of the bird flu. At week’s end, researchers with the World Health Organization were preparing to travel to southern China to search for the mysterious virus. Said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, an influenza specialist with the Atlantabased Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is studying the virus in Hong Kong: “There is genuine concern about a pandemic for the first time in 20 years.”

Until last spring, the deadly virus had been found only in birds. On May 21, however, the disease claimed a three-year-old Hong Kong boy who lived near a chicken farm and often played in an area where the birds were bred. Since then, three more people have died, 12 others have become infected and new cases continue to emerge. Four women, aged 19 to 25, who contracted the flu remained in critical condition. Most of the victims were poultry workers or laboratory technicians who had come into contact with the virus, which quickly attacks the human respiratory system, depriving organs of oxygen and causing severe coughing. Normally, socalled avian flus are transferred from birds to other animals, such as pigs, after which the virus mutates and becomes capable of infecting humans. In this case, however, scientists believe that the bird flu virus is somehow moving directly from birds to people. Of even greater concern is the fact that the virus now appears to be moving from human to human. While many health officials in Canada were quick to play down the threat to North Americans, Dr. Andrew Simor, an infectious disease specialist at the Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto, said that someone carrying bird flu could have already brought it to Canada and that it is likely only a matter of time before it spreads across the country. ‘We may not see it this year,” he said, “but I suspect sooner or later we will see this strain.” Hoping to contain the disease, Hong Kong officials imposed a Christmas Eve ban on all imports of live chicken from China. Over two days, health officials forced the owners of 160 chicken farms, 39 mixed poultry farms and more than 1,000 poultry vendors to kill

their birds. Most were placed in large green garbage bags and gassed to death with carbon dioxide. At one point, the exterminators were so busy that the territory’s supply of the gas ran out, forcing them to slit the birds’ throats. The carcasses were then sanitized with lime and buried in three specially prepared landfill sites. Farms, markets and pens were also sprayed with germ-killing chemicals. Government promises of financial compensation failed to mollify many of the vendors, who claimed their businesses had been ruined and that they had been misled by Hong Kong health director Margaret Chan—who announced earlier in December that the disease posed no threat and that she herself was still eating chicken every day. “We just bought all fresh stock,” complained one angry salesman as he prepared to kill his birds. ‘We’re losing a lot of money.”

Health officials said the massive cull was necessary because Southeast Asia has spawned several major outbreaks of influenza in the past—including the virulent Hong Kong flu in 1968 that killed almost 50,000 people around the world. Dr. Simor said that deadly viruses can spread more rapidly in that region than in Canada because Southeast Asia is densely populated and because many of the people who live there still shop in markets where live animals are sold. (Health officials say consumers can easily kill poultry-borne viruses by cooking the meat.) Fukuda, for his part, said that if the virus does take hold among humans it could mutate into an even more dangerous form and begin to spread rapidly around the world. For now, scientists have few weapons in their arsenal to control it. The virus for influenza vaccine can normally be incubated in poultry eggs in laboratories, but the strain that has caused panic in Hong Kong actually kills eggs. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control are currently trying to develop a vaccine, but a full-scale outbreak at this point would be difficult to control. Said Fukuda: “The virus could sort of hang around—either in birds or in low levels in humans, and then gain the ability to infect humans more easily and be transmitted from person to person.”

Scientists with the Hong Kong government and the World Health Organization believe the bird flu originated in farms in China’s southern Guangdong province, which borders on the former British territory. In what amounted to one of the first tests of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, government officials stepped up border patrols along the territory’s northern frontier to prevent the smuggling of chickens. Hong Kong scientists are scheduled to begin inspecting chicken farms in Guangdong next week, but local officials say their own investigations, including 1,200 blood tests on chickens in the area, have failed to turn up even a single case of the virus. Even so, there have been persistent reports that more than one million chickens were slaughtered in the region after contracting the virus in 1996.

Back in Hong Kong, many consumers were shunning all forms of poultry, even though health officials said there was no danger of catching the disease from cooked or imported frozen chicken. At the Midnight Express, a popular fast-food restaurant, chef Vishnu Karunakara said that sales of dishes with chicken had fallen by 40 per cent. As a customer approached the counter, Karunakara grabbed a box stamped “Atlanta, Georgia” that had contained frozen chicken. “See?” he said. “Straight from U.S.A. No Chinese chicken here.”

At Fairwood’s, a nearby restaurant known for its chicken legs, construction company administrator Michael Kwok was surprised when his salad arrived with two chicken wings on top. “No way,” said Kwok. “I won’t eat the salad because that has chicken stuff on it now.” At a neighboring table, Winnie Chiu was also playing it safe. “I love chicken feet. But now I think it’s not right to eat any part of the chicken. I could get sick.”

In an effort to reassure their passengers, Cathay Pacific and other airlines serving Hong Kong announced they would stop serving chicken on outbound flights. At the same time, many travel agents were telling clients to avoid Hong Kong altogether. “I would not go now to Hong Kong. It’s not so safe,” said Patty Yang, a travel agent in Taipei. “People have died from this thing.” And the mysterious virus may not have finished its deadly work yet.