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Macao to Resume Chicken Imports

Macao said yesterday it will resume live and chilled chicken imports from the mainland city of Zhuhai on Friday.

Commenting on the news, Hong Kong Permanent Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Carrie Yau said the situations in the territory and Macao are different. The latter, where there are few chicken farms, relies heavily on mainland imports. Hong Kong's chicken farms are still providing 40,000 live poultry to the market everyday.

The Hong Kong government's decision not to resume imports in the near future gained support from a World Health Organization (WHO) scientist.

"As avian flu outbreaks are still happening on the mainland, it is still premature to resume imports of mainland chickens," said Robert Webster, a virologist from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Animal Influenza in Tennessee.

Webster yesterday announced a human vaccine for the H5N1 avian flu virus will be available in six months after testing trials on human subjects are complete.

"Using a new approach called reverse genetics, we have developed a vaccine that adapts to the changing nature of the avian flu virus," Webster told reporters at a press meeting yesterday. The latest technology ensures that the new vaccines can be produced in large quantities within two to three weeks.

"In developing the vaccine, we have to match it accurately with the virus. With reverse genetics, we are able to extract the potent parts of the virus that kill chickens and humans, resulting in a virus that is safe and similar to the vaccine strain used on humans," Webster explained.

"The vaccine will be evaluated continually, while the reverse genetics system allows us to rapidly modify the master strain according to changes in the virus," he said.

Webster said the vaccine is specifically designed to combat the Viet Nam strain of the H5N1 virus that has killed 15 people.

In the last few years, Hong Kong has laid down the scientific basis for dealing with avian flu in the future, and the WHO will look at the applicability of local prevention measures in other parts of the world, Webster said.

When asked about the possibility of an avian flu outbreak in Hong Kong this year, head of Hong Kong University's microbiology department Yuen Kwok-yung said he is optimistic that science-based measures taken in the last few years, such as surveillance in wet markets and enhanced bio-security in farms, will continue to check the spread of the virus in the territory.

"Since 1997, joint research efforts between the government and university researchers, along with experts at the WHO on surveillance, laboratory techniques and vaccine development have prevented a major outbreak in Hong Kong," said Yuen.

He suggested that chickens be killed at central slaughterhouses instead of street-side stalls to minimize the risk of bird flu.

"A key step in avian flu prevention is to minimize contact between humans and poultry, and central slaughtering is a viable method".

(China Daily HK Edition March 2, 2004)

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