Authorities in Hong Kong have banned imports of poultry products from certain places in neighbouring Shenzhen, a major city in the south of Southern China’s Guangdong Province, following the death there of a man confirmed as having the deadly form of bird flu known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1.

On 31 December, Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department announced that an area of 13 km surrounding where the patient, a 39-year-old bus driver, lived is designated an “import control zone”.

“The decision was made after communicating with the Mainland authorities concerned in accordance with established guidelines,” they told the press.

The ban will be in place for 21 days, with effect from 1 January, and covers the import of live poultry and poulty products, including eggs and chilled and frozen poultry.

A CFS spokesman said these measures are in line with a zonal approach policy that the government set up in 2008:

“Under the zonal approach policy, in the event of a confirmed human case of HPAI infection within Guangdong Province including Shenzhen, we will suspend the import of live poultry and poultry products from the ‘import control zone’ (i.e. the area of 13 km radius from the possible place of infection) for 21 days.”

The spokesman added that if there is evidence that the patient came into contact with poultry within 14 days of the disease starting, then the “import control zone” covers the likely implicated or related poultry farms, markets and other places where the patient may have come into contact with infected birds.

If no such contact is established, then the import control zone is assumed to be around the patient’s usual place of residence, or where he was living in the 14 days up to disease onset.

The spokesman said they would continue to monitor the latest situation and take appropriate action. The zonal approach policy is a guideline for handling individual cases, but they also take into account other factors such as the severity of virus spread, when deciding how to enforce any suspensions, he emphasized.

The Hong Kong authorities are urging all travellers to avoid direct contact with poultry, birds, and their droppings and if such contact occurs, to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.

In the meantime, the Chinese health authorities are appealing for calm and emphasizing that the strain of bird flu that killed the man in Shenzhen over the weekend is not one that transmits easily between humans.

The Shenzhen Center for Disease Prevention and Control told the press that the H5N1 strain is 90% similar to those previously found in ducks in China. It suggests the bus driver most likely came into direct contact with an infected bird, they said, according to a report from Reuters on Monday.

The genetic analysis also suggests that the virus can be treated with the common antiviral, amantadine.

In mid-December, the Hong Kong authorities ordered the cull of 17,000 birds at a wholesale poultry market after a dead bird tested positive for H5N1.

The H5N1 avian virus is normally found in birds, but can sometimes infect humans who come into contact with them. So far these is no evidence that it can jump from one human to another, but researchers are concerned it is only a matter of time before the virus acquires this ability, and given its current high kill rate, that this would result in a catastrophic pandemic.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD