From: Michael Wilson (MWILSON/0005514706at_private)
Date: Thu Jan 08 1998 - 10:52:44 PST

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             Hong Kong experts race against time in fighting bird flu virus
          Copyright ) 1998 Nando.net
          Copyright ) 1998 Reuters
       HONG KONG (January 8, 1998 12:18 p.m. EST http://www.nando.net) -
       Medical experts said on Thursday that Hong Kong must stamp out a deadly
       new "bird flu" virus before its peak influenza season begins in March,
       increasing the likelihood that it could mutate into a more easily
       transmitted human strain.
       "The potential exists for influenza viruses to mix with one another to
       exchange their genes," said Malik Peiris, associate professor of
       microbiology at the University of Hong Kong.
       "There is a possibility that the genes of this avian H5 virus might mix
       with one of the existing human viruses, like the H3 virus, and you might
       have a virus that is more efficiently transmitted person to person," he
       said in a radio interview.
       John Tam, a virologist professor at the Chinese University, said the
       strain needed to be eradicated before March.
       "If the H5 virus hangs around until March, there is a chance that a
       person will be infected by the human flu virus and the H5 virus," he
       said in the South China Morning Post.
       With such a combination, Tam said: "You'd have a new virus which would
       have the ability to spread among humans easily."
       The H5N1 avian virus, not known to affect humans until last year, has
       killed four people in Hong Kong and infected at least 12. Two are
       suspected to be infected.
       It is unclear how the virus infected people but experts say it was
       probably transmitted directly from birds to humans.
       There is no vaccine against the H5N1, which can cause multiple-organ
       failure, and few humans have antibodies against it.
       Peiris said tests must be done on all types of poultry to see if they
       could be responsible for passing the virus.
       Hong Kong slaughtered 1.4 chickens and other poultry this month in a bid
       to contain the disease and banned live chicken imports from China, which
       used to supply three-quarters of the territory's consumption.
       The virus has spooked countries across Asia and Europe that still harbor
       vivid memories of a "Hong Kong flu" pandemic in 1968 that killed 46,500
       people worldwide.
       A number of countries have banned imports of live chickens from China.
       Switzerland has banned poultry feathers from China.
       The Hong Kong government bowed to pressure on Wednesday from angry
       poultry workers and raised compensation payouts to between $2.33 and
       $4.92 for each chicken killed, depending on the size.
       The government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is facing one of its
       toughest challenges since Britain ceded the territory to communist China
       in July, ending 156 years of colonial rule.
       Pro-Beijing politicians and opposition parties alike have sharply
       criticized the handling of the flu scare by Tung's administration.
       If the bird flu scare continues, it could become an election issue as
       Hong Kong heads into its first legislative polls since the handover in
       By TAN EE LYN, Reuters

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