Falcon in Hong Kong dead with `bird flu'

Chicken farm monitoring to increase

sign disease might also be in China


HONG KONG - A dead peregrine falcon found near two chicken farms here had the avian influenza virus, agricultural officials said yesterday. The falcon is the first sign that the disease spreading in chicken flocks in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan might also be present in China.

Hong Kong said it would respond by stepping up the monitoring of chicken farms for the disease, with inspections continuing through the Chinese New Year beginning today.

World Health Organization officials have been very alarmed about the spread of the influenza virus, the A(H5N1) strain of bird flu. They have described the scale of its spread as "unprecedented," and warned that the disease could evolve to spread from person to person, not just from birds to people.

The agency has confirmed five cases in people in Vietnam, all of whom apparently contracted the disease from chickens and all of whom have died.

Hong Kong began actively testing wild birds last March, after two residents became infected with A(H5N1) and one died. Agricultural officials have collected more than 6,000 samples from wild birds since then, and discovered no infections until the falcon.

An agricultural worker found the dead falcon Monday, less than seven miles from the border between Hong Kong, a special autonomous region of China, and Shenzhen, an adjacent Chinese city. But Lai Ching-wai, Hong Kong's assistant director for agricultural inspection and quarantine, said experts could not guess where the rare bird became infected.

Hong Kong has a dozen peregrine falcons that live here all year long, typically foraging within a 15-mile radius of their favorite roosts. But another 30 to 40 falcons winter here after migrating from breeding grounds as far away as Siberia, and agricultural officials here have not been able to determine whether the dead bird was migratory or resident.

Lai said that the migratory falcons do not travel to South Korea or Japan, which have been slaughtering chickens in response to outbreaks there. China, Mongolia and Russia have not acknowledged having cases of A(H5N1) bird flu.

Roy Wadia, a spokesman in Beijing for the World Health Organization, said the agency asked the Ministry of Health there a few days ago for details about what it is doing to prevent the spread of the disease in China, but had not yet received a reply.

China's Agriculture Ministry announced Monday that it was requiring local governments to report daily on whether they had detected any cases of bird flu. China has banned poultry imports from infected countries.

Pathologists are conducting tests to determine whether the falcon here died of the virus or some other cause. While A(H5N1) is lethal to domesticated fowl and has an estimated 30 percent mortality rate in people, it appears to cause less harm to wild fowl, which are believed to spread the disease.

Hong Kong has had a half-dozen outbreaks of A(H5N1) in local birds since 1997, when 18 people were infected and 6 of them died. The recurrence of the disease here has fanned suspicions about whether the disease is present in southern China, although Chinese officials have denied this.

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