Poultry will be culled and imports suspended if a quick test on live chickens, to be introduced this week, detects any positive results for H7N9, the health minister said yesterday.
Food and Health Bureau Secretary Dr Ko Wing-man announced there hade been nine suspected cases of human infection in Hong Kong, but all were found to be negative. Some schools are stepping up flu prevention measures and adopting more stringent cleaning practices.
Ko said the government would immediately activate its alert to "serious response level" once the city detected its first H7N9 infection - either in birds or in humans.
"There are still no signs that H7N9 can be transmitted from human to human," he said. "Still, we have to remain vigilant."
Starting on Thursday, the government will implement a new H7N9 test on all live chickens imported into the city from the mainland via the Man Kam To Control Point.
The new test will produce results in four hours, a vast improvement on the four days needed for the current test, which Ko said did not measure up to what was needed to monitor an imminent health threat.
All live poultry - including locally raised birds - will be held at Cheung Sha Wan Temporary Wholesale Poultry Market to await results of H5N1 and H7N9 tests, before being sold.
According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, an average of 30 samples would be taken from every 1,000 birds. A spokeswoman said that at its peak 7,000 chickens arrived from the mainland daily.
"Poultry remains the greatest threat to human health," Ko said. "We have to make sure that any sick chickens [affected by H7N9] are not sold. Once we find any infected chickens, we will start culling some or all of the chickens."
When asked whether the government would advise Hongkongers not to visit H7N9 affected areas, such as Shanghai, Ko said: "So far the World Health Organisation has not issued any travel warnings concerning the H7N9 infections. We will observe the situation closely and act according to the advice of the organisation."
Ko said a health declaration system at the border might be activated if there were a confirmed H7N9 case in Hong Kong.
Schools with cross-border pupils are responding to the risk by increasing their flu prevention measures. Some were conducting extra temperature checks while others have cancelled morning assembly to reduce the chance of the virus spreading among pupils.
The children of Pui Yau Kindergarten in Sheung Shui who come from the mainland underwent two additional temperature checks on top of the two regular ones they undergo along their journey to school.
"Children's body temperature fluctuates a lot in the morning and their fever may not be shown at first. We don't want to have anyone slipping through the net," said principal Poo Siu-fung.
The mainland children have their first temperature reading when their parents take them to board the school bus. The second one is while they are on the bus, the third when they cross the border, and the final one when they arrive at the school gate.
At Pui Yau, the school is being disinfected with bleach of a higher concentration than what is used during regular cleaning over the weekend.
Click on each balloon for more information on individual patients infected with the avian flu virus: blue, patients infected with the H7N9 virus under treatment; red, those infected with the H7N9 who have died; and pink, those with H1N1 avian flu virus.