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Chinese provinces ban live bird sales; new H7N9 found in Hong Kong

Authorities in eastern China have banned live poultry sales following increased H7N9 infections. Bird flu cases dropped significantly after the end of June last year but have spiked recently with the onset of winter.

Hong Kong began killing 20,000 chickens and suspended imports of fresh poultry from mainland China for 21 days on Tuesday after the discovery of the H7N9 bird flu virus in a shipment of live chickens from the southern province of Guangdong. Authorities also ordered the closure of the wholesale poultry market where they found the virus until February 18 for cleaning and disinfection and banned local farms from supplying live chickens to the market.

"Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department officers will inspect all the local chicken farms and collect more samples for testing to ensure that local farms are not affected by H7 avian influenza," Hong Kong Food and Health Secretary Dr. Ko Wing-man said in a statement.

The virus is

relatively new to Hong Kong

. However, so far this year alone, H7N9 has killed 19 people in mainland China out of 96 infections, state media quoted Feng Zijian, deputy director of the country's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying Monday. The virus remains hard to catch, though most cases have links to contact with poultry.

Deadlier 2014?

H7N9

arrived in the Chinese capital

, Beijing, last April. In the whole of 2013, China had 144 confirmed cases including 46 deaths. The H7N9 human outbreak began in China in February 2013 and reignited fears that a bird flu virus could mutate to become easily transmissible between people, threatening to trigger a pandemic. However,

no evidence has emerged

so far of sustained human-to-human transmission, according to both Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization.

The jump in cases comes during the 40-day travel period around Chinese New Year, a period that concerns health authorities because of the volume of people traveling in crowded trains and buses, often with live chickens aboard. Authorities expect 3.6 billion trips during the period as families reunite. The holiday, which officially starts Friday, also falls during the winter months when flu typically rages.

Common in Asia, live poultry markets allow viruses to spread between birds held in very high concentrations. Live poultry trading will come to a halt in cities in coastal Zhejiang province from February 15, where 49 people have become infected and 12 people have died this year, according to local media.

Neighboring Shanghai will halt live poultry trading for three months starting Friday. The city has reported eight infections and four deaths this year.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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