Bird flu is back

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Avian influenza has returned to Hong Kong, but hardly anyone here seems panicked. In late 2005 and early 2006, when the disease killed 13 people on the mainland and more than a dozen infected birds were found in Hong Kong, people followed the news with dread. Now it barely inspires a murmur. I think I’ve heard just one concerned comment so far.

The latest threat emerged in the form of the unfortunately named scaly-breasted munia. One of the small brown birds was found dead in the crowded shopping and residential district of Causeway Bay on New Year’s Eve. A week later, when it was confirmed that the bird was killed by the dangerous H5N1 strain, the news was greeted with a shrug. The English-language South China Morning Post dutifully ran a front-page story. But the Apple Daily, a Chinese-language tabloid that never shies from suitably terrifying news, led instead with the death of 96-year-old instant noodle pioneer Momofuku Ando (from the mundane cause of heart failure).

Hong Kong has a painful history of infectious disease. SARS killed 299 people here in 2002 and 2003. Hong Kong reported the first known human infections of H5N1 in 1997, when it killed six people in the territory. A massive cull of poultry that year was credited with slowing the spread of the virus. The big concern has long been that avian flu could mutate to become easily transmittable between humans, launching a global pandemic. And while experts say that risk has not eased, people here seem to have at least grown accustomed to the threat. Hong Kong authorities launched a new round of checks on poultry farms and temporarily shuttered aviaries in local parks. The government also reminded pet owners that they “should not kiss their birds.” Another sacrifice for health. –Austin Ramzy

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