, Research Paper
Bird Flu Crisis in Hong Kong
Do you know how many chickens do we consume every day? Three thousand, five thousand or more? We demand almost more than ten thousand chickens daily. What a big figure! We can see that chickens are very important to Chinese society. Chickens are always devoted to God and served in dinners to celebrate traditional festivals. Without chickens, it will cause inconvenience to Hong Kong people, especially during Lunar New Year. Unfortunately, Hong Kong people has just encountered this situation. Because of the outbreak of bird flu, all chickens had to be removed from Hong Kong. In this report, we would like to talk about the topic Bird Flu Crisis In Hong Kong . We will give a brief introduction of the bird flu virus H5N1, analyse the short-term and long-term consequences of the flu in Hong Kong and see what Hong Kong have learned from this incident.
What is Influenza A (H5N1)?
There are three types of influenza, designated A, B and C. Influenza B and C rarely cause local outbreak of flu but not the influenza A. It is very important to all mankind as this is the type of virus that has caused world-wide pandemics. And H5N1 belongs to the vision of influenza A.
What is H5N1? H stands for hemagglutinin (HA), which is a viral protein. It will cause the red blood cells to stick together. And N is the viral protein too, which is called neuraminidase (NA). In an influenza virion, there are five hundred spikes sticking out from its lipid envelope in which 80% of the spikes are HA and 20% NA. HA helps the virion get into host cells and NA helps the offspring virions to get out. The two virions together are responsible for the viruses ability to cause the disease. (Cited from http://www.synapse.ndirect.co.uk)
Bird flu virus H5N1 was first isolated form birds in South Africa in 1961. Within these 37 years, the virus seemed to disappear in the world. But with no warning given in advance, the virus reappeared last year in May and caused 6 deaths in Hong Kong.
People who are infected by the virus H5N1 would have the characteristic symptoms including a rapid development of fever and chills, headache, sore throat, muscle pains and dry cough. These symptoms would commence after the incubation period of 1 to 4 days. (Lee, Stella).
Short-term consequences of bird flu crisis
1. Pressure on hospitals
The sudden outbreak of H5N1 brought about worries and fears to Hong Kong people. We know very little about the virus so people suffering form winter colds crowded the emergency services of different hospitals. This increased the burden of the emergency services.
The Department of Health was to blame because if failed to inform the public of the symptoms of bird flu infection. It should have told the differences between and cold and flu through TV and radio announcements. Also all government clinics should have been open on Sundays and public holidays so that people could go there for blood testing.
2. Import ban and mass slaughter of chickens
Since H5N1 was found in the blood samples of some of the chickens, all chickens had to be removed from Hong Kong to prevent the spread of the disease. On 24 December 1997, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) banned all chicken imports from the mainland. And on 29th of the same month, the AFD started to slaughter all the chickens in local poultry farms and market stalls.
It was criticised that the mass slaughter was too late because H5N1 had already killed 2 persons. Since the AFD overlooked the difficulties of the mass slaughter, the proposed 24-hour operation finally turned out to be a 3-day one. The AFD claimed that their staff had no experience in slaughtering and thus made the slaughter process much more time consuming.
In the slaughter process, chickens are gassed to death by using carbon dioxide (CO2). Due to the lack of CO2 in Hong Kong, gassed-to-death process was inefficient. In addition, some slaughtered poultry was not disposed on the spot. Therefore chickens were left alive and they ran away with the disease. Though the AFD made a lot of mistakes in the slaughtering process, the slaughter has been successful. Since then, new cases have no longer reported.
3. Financial loss of poultry farmers, wholesalers and retailers
Poultry farmers and vendors suffered a great loss in the slaughtering. On one hand, they lost all their livestock. On the other hand, they had to cover the rental and wages expenses even though they could no longer run their businesses. They lost their means of livelihood. If the government paid no compensation for them, they might go bankruptcy.
To relieve the burden of the victims of the slaughter, the government spent $770 million to compensate for the poultry industry. This included cost of chickens killed, rent waived and exaggeration payments. However, many retailers dissatisfied with the compensation scheme.
We think that the compensation plan has already taken care of those directly affected by the slaughtering. The compensation is public money so it must be used carefully. Outbreak of H5N1 is not the fault of Hong Kong government and it has taken the right action of slaughtering all chickens. Therefore poultry farmers and vendors should not shift the whole burden to the government.
4. Tourism industry hit by flu fears
Bird flu terror further hit the struggling tourism industry. Tourists from all over the world did not dare to visit Hong Kong. Officials of Cathay Pacific Airline in Taiwan said that 15% (about 25 000 tickets) of the two-for-one tickets had been refunded. Cancellation had also come from all other places. (Poole, Olive). In reassure tourists, an updated information sheet was released on 20th January 1998 by the Department of Health and was circulated through government overseas offices. (Cited from http://www.info.gov.hk/dh/new/index.htm)
However it was a bit late to release the information sheet in January. The Department of Health should have it ready early in December and made enough copies so that they can be delivered at the border check points. Also the Hong Kong Tourist Association should send copies to all over the world, claiming that Hong Kong is a safe place to visit.
5. Deprivation of fresh chickens for 6 weeks
After removing all the live chickens form Hong Kong, would there still be the supply of chickens or chicken dishes? Our group did a survey two weeks after the slaughter so as to see if the business of the market stalls and the food premises were affected.
We walked around 29 chicken stalls and most of them were closed. Only one in Chi Fu shifted to sell vegetables.
Market Stalls (District) 17 January 1998 21 February 1998 Remarks
Chi Fu *1 Shifted to sell vegetables
Western District *3
Sheung Wan *6
Wan Chai *10
We inspected 23 supermarkets and convenient stores. Frozen chickens were still for sale in 14 of them while 8 stores were still selling ready-to-serve chicken snacks. We checked the packages of chickens and all frozen chickens were from USA, Denmark or Brazil.
Supermarkets Frozen chickens? Ready-to-serve chicken snack
Park n *6
Dai Cheong *1
Tung Tai *1
Seven Eleven *6
What about the food premises? We visited altogether 13 restaurants among 9 were Chinese and the others supplied foreign foods. All the Chinese restaurants no longer supplied chickens. 5 of them used pigeons as substitutes while the others used seafood and vegetables. The other 4 restaurants, providing Korean, Thai or Vietnamese food still supplied chicken dishes.
Types of restaurants Chicken dishes Substitutes
Chinese *9 Pigeons (5) / Vegetables & Seafood (4)
Our last target was fast food shops. 8 out of 9 were still selling ready-to-serve chicken snacks. 3 of them even claimed that their chickens were from USA, not from the mainland. Only one i.e. Delifrance replaced chickens with turkeys.
Fast Food Shops Ready-to-serve chicken snack
Caf de Coral
Oliver s Supersandwich
It seems that the deprivation of chickens had little effect on the business of different food premises. They simply replaced fresh chickens with pigeons, vegetables, seafood or frozen chickens. However it did caused inconvenience to Hong Kong people during the Lunar New Year. We interviewed a few housewives during Chinese New Year. They said it was a pity to have no chickens in such an important festival. They all used seafood and roasted pork as substitutes. They hoped that the supply of chickens would be resumed very soon.
6. Shortage of fresh chickens leads to high price
Our pre-ban demand for chickens was 100 000 birds per day but on 7th February 1998, only 35 000 chickens were imported. Due to the limited supply, fresh chickens were sold out in hours, despite prices (about $100 each) were almost twice the pre-ban prices. (Ng Kang-Chung). Even though the number of imported chickens are now gradually increasing, it is still not enough to meet the demand and so the retail prices remain high.
When poultry industry was in downturn after the mass slaughter, the public gave moral and financial support to it. Therefore it is unsocial for retailers to repay their loss by over-charging chicken consumers. Retailers should only charge a fair price.
Long term consequences of bird flu crisis
1. Better co-ordination between different government departments
By reviewing government s action towards the outbreak of the bird flu, we think that government learn a lesson and will have better co-ordination between different departments. In mid-December, the Urban Services Department, the Regional Services Department, Hospital Authority, the Department of Health, the Education Department and the Social Welfare Department issued guidelines to different entities respectively on how to handle chickens and to deal with suspected cases of bird flu. Also there were TV and radio announcements informing the public the symptoms of getting bird flu. Telephone hotlines were set up to answer queries.(Cited from http://www.scmp.com/news/special/Birdflu/Index.a
sp?Folio=Fallout). It is believed that through this experience, different government departments has built up a communication link among themselves. Then they will have better co-ordination in dealing with emergency in the future.
We have Dr. Campbell of University Health Care Service. As a medical professional, she thought that government had given enough guidelines to doctors. The Hong Kong Medical Association had given update information about the disease to doctors through medical bulletin. So she had confidence in dealing with the disease. If she discovered any suspected cases, she would send them to hospitals. Also blood samples collected in the University clinic would be sent to public laboratory for further chemical analysis.
2. Introduction of checking process on imported live chickens
Since most of our poultry come from the mainland, the outbreak of bird flu brings about the inspection of imported live poultry. On 7th February 1998, Hong Kong government resumed the import of fresh chickens from the mainland. Since then, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) start to conduct H5N1 tests on imported chickens at the Man Kam To border checkpoints. This ensures that poultry which infected by the virus H5N1 will not be brought to Hong Kong and transmit the disease to other local poultry.
However the checking process is criticised as inefficient and ill-planned. The process takes so much time that the birds will be doomed to die on the long journey. This is proved by the fact that on 19th February 1998, there were reported case of death of 400 chickens because they were crammed in the truck for a long time. Though there were a lot of criticisms against the checking process, the AFD should not be pressured into relaxing the system. Instead, the AFD should recruit more staff to speed up the process and minimise the number of deaths of chickens.
3. Police combated crime
Although bird flu crisis brought about a lot of fears to Hong Kong people, it made the police be aware of the illegal activity which had occurred at the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market for 8 years. Poultry wholesalers had been charged for so-called service fees for cages. However these charges were actually illegal. Over the past 8 years, poultry traders had already paid more than $20 million to the service company which was controlled by triad members. After the mass slaughter of chickens, this illegal activity was disclosed to the police and they successfully combated the crime. The removal of service fees enables each trader to save $20 000 per month. This in turns cut down the wholesale prices of chickens by 60 cents a catty. And Hong Kong people will then have the chance to consume cheaper chickens despite the over-charging by retailers.(Lee, Naomi).
4. Cleaner markets and guidelines for chicken hawkers
After removing all the chickens from HK, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) and the Urban Services Department (USD) carried out a revamp plan at both the wholesale market and all the market stalls. All the wooden cages were replaced by plastic cages which would be cleaned up more easily. Chicken cages at market stalls were cleaned thoroughly and newly painted. The markets now have a fresh and clean look.
In the meantime, detailed guidelines were given to chicken hawkers. They were asked to wear gloves and masks while handling chickens and wash their hands immediately after dealing with chickens. Also chickens should be slaughtered at the market s centralised scalding rooms. We visited the 29 chicken stalls again after the guidelines were issued. We could see that very few hawkers observed the rules. Some of them said that the rules were time-consuming and ridiculous. They would follow the guidelines only when they were checked by inspectors. (Lee, Naomi)
Guidelines will not be effective in preventing the spread of bird flu if they are observed by hawkers. Inspectors should make more sudden inspections or give penalties to hawkers who violate the rules. And we hope that hawkers will be more care about hygiene and follow the rules.
5. Viral investigation concerned
While all the criticisms are pointing towards government s slow action against the spread of bird flu, government make the right decision to establish an advanced medical laboratory in Hong Kong by 2001. We will no longer be completely dependent on other countries. This laboratory will centralise the disease monitoring, trace the origin of the infectious disease and
implement measures to control its spread. With this laboratory, Hong Kong can cope with the outbreak of contagious disease in a much faster rate. Also we can do our research and develop vaccines and new drugs for the disease.
6. Health Consciousness aroused
After the bird flu crisis, Hong Kong people become more health conscious. In the past, people used to have steamed chickens, which is partially done, so that the meat would be tender. But now chickens are thoroughly cooked before serving in meals. Apart from bird flu, people are more concerned for other intestinal disorder and food poisoning. They are more alert to eating shell fish, vegetables and poultry. All these kinds of food are thoroughly washed and 100% cooked.
On one hand, bird flu crisis created a lot of negative short-term outcomes in Hong Kong. It increased the burden of hospitals, caused deprivation of chickens for more than one month, took away the means of livelihood of poultry traders and hit the struggling tourism industry. But on the other hand, both Hong Kong government and Hong Kong people learn a lesson from this incidence. The public become more health-conscious, chicken hawkers are more aware of the hygiene of their stalls and the government concerns more about the viral investigation.
It is criticised that government was too slow to take action so the bird flu brought a lot of terrors and worries to Hong Kong people. However government did a good job in keeping the death rate of bird flu as low as possible. The mass slaughter was successful in stopping the spread of the disease.
Instead of just pointing out the faults of the government, Hong Kong people should try to safeguard themselves by following the guidelines issued by the government. Always be health-conscious and keep ourselves fit and strong, we will not be easily frightened by new diseases.
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