Cleanliness best defense against Hong Kong flu


CORVALLIS - Plastic boots, paper overalls and common sense likely will be all the protection the public will require to keep a mutated poultry disease from breaking out in the United States, an Oregon State University poultry specialist said.

Jim Hermes, an associate professor with the OSU Extension Service, said there is no way yet of knowing when - or if - there will be a repeat outbreak of the so-called Hong Kong flu. The virus, which began as a chicken disease known as Avian Influenza, mutated and became known as H5N1, a virus that infected 18 people in Hong Kong last December and killed six of them.

Health officials in Hong Kong ordered the slaughter of more than a million chickens in hopes of stopping the spread of the virus. No cases have been reported since, and that may be the end of the problem.

"The Hong Kong Avian Flu may never be seen again," Hermes said. "While the chicken was implicated and the virus was similar to the bird disease, much of the Hong Kong problem had more to do with the (Chinese) practice of marketing live birds to consumers. These practices are virtually non-existent in our poultry industry, which reduces the chances of problems with this flu strain entering the U.S. population from chickens."

All of the people infected in Hong Kong are believed to have come in close contact with live chickens. It is more common in Hong Kong to buy chickens live and slaughter them shortly before their preparation.

But in Oregon, the state's $90 million broiler and egg industry takes effective common-sense precautions to see that doesn't happen, said Hermes, who called the measures "biosecurity."

"It may mean closing down the farm (to visitors) sometimes," he said. "It certainly always means driving the biosecurity message home...wearing covers on shoes and disposable overalls."

Precautions such as those already are a normal part of commercial poultry production. The need for them was heightened by the Hong Kong flu outbreak, a reminder that viruses can mutate and become deadly. But for now, Hermes said, there is no evidence that Hong Kong flu is easily transmitted between humans.

There also is no evidence that Avian flu could spread to wild bird populations or that the general public is at risk for the disease from grocery store chickens.

In the meantime, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have remained watchful for any future outbreaks. A vaccine has been developed, but it is not yet available, Hermes said.