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Trying to slam the door on bird flu

In Hong Kong, the bustling commercial capital that calls itself   "Asia's World City,” the public health chief has gotten the attention of business leaders, in tough talk about potential measures to curb the spread of bird flu. NBC News' George Lewis reports.
/ Source: NBC News

HONG KONG — In this bustling commercial capital that calls itself  "Asia's World City,” the public health chief has gotten the attention of business leaders with his tough talk about potential measures to curb the spread of bird flu. 

Dr. York Chow, Hong Kong's Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, has threatened to close the border with the Chinese mainland if the H5NI strain of avian influenza moves into the human population.

"If it is proven to be human-to-human transmission," Dr. Chow said at a meeting in Beijing, "then we have to be very careful and we might have to close the border."

China taking preventive measures
China is trying to contain a new outbreak of bird flu in poultry. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said about 91,000 birds were destroyed at a farm in northern China. 

The Chinese government said that the birds were culled after 2,600 chickens and ducks died from the H5N1 virus in a breading facility near the capital of China's Inner Mongolia region.

So far, the virus has killed 67 people; 44 in Vietnam, 13 in Thailand, six in Indonesia and four in Cambodia. Practically all of the victims had been in close contact with birds or had consumed improperly cooked poultry products. 

The latest fatality was a 48-year old Thai man who, according to authorities, slaughtered and cooked a sick chicken. So far, there have been no reports of human cases in mainland China or Hong Kong.

Public health experts fear the virus could eventually mutate into a form that would spread rapidly from person to person, igniting a global pandemic. They fear a worst-case scenario similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people around the world.

Shutting borders would be painful for the economy
Many countries have threatened to shut borders if there's a human-to-human outbreak. 

For Hong Kong, that would be extremely painful because its history and current prosperity are tied to its status as a key export center for Chinese goods.  

The cost of closing the border with the mainland is not something this city's business leaders like to contemplate.

But the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua quoted Hui Liangyu, the vice premier of China as saying: "Our country is at the peak season of the bird flu outbreak. The situation is grave."

Xinhua said the vice premier issued orders instructing Chinese officials to step up efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. That includes destroying diseased flocks of poultry, quarantining humans who may have come in contact with sick birds and carefully mapping the spread of the virus.

"We cannot let down our guard, we cannot underestimate the risks of the outbreaks," Hui admonished.

Migratory birds are a major threat
Hong Kong and the mainland government signed an agreement on Thursday to increase cooperation on stopping the smuggling of uninspected food products across the border as Taiwan reported the capture of a shipment of infected birds smuggled from the Chinese mainland.

Efforts to contain the virus are stymied by the fact that it is now being spread by wild flocks of migrating birds. Scientists in places as far flung as West Africa, Australia, Europe and the U.S. are testing migratory birds for any signs of H5N1.

In a telephone conversation with NBC News, a spokesperson for the health authorities in Hong Kong sought to dampen public fears about bird flu, noting there is no imminent threat to close the border.

And Dr. Chow echoed that from Beijing, saying that in the event of human bird flu cases in China, "We need to have some time to investigate to be sure that this is a new virus and has the risk of human-to-human transmission."

In the meantime, Hong Kong authorities are stockpiling anti-viral medicines while awaiting the development of a vaccine against the H5N1 bird flu virus.

Their goal is to have 20 million doses of the antivirals Tamiflu and Relenza on hand by 2007, although specialists in viral medicine question the effectiveness of these drugs against the H5N1 bird flu virus.

The Hong Kong government is doing what health authorities around the world are also doing: hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.