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Bird flu slaughter hits pet corners

HONG KoNG

Hong Kong teachers say science and general studies lessons will be hit by the slaughter of more than a million chickens, ducks and other fowl to stem a feared epidemic of a virulent new strain of "bird flu".

Many schools and kindergartens have turned their pet birds over to the authorities for slaughter and pupils will return after the winter break to find their "pet corner" depleted, because Hong Kong's education department last month advised schools to get rid of any feathered creatures kept on the premises.

School pet corners, where chicks and ducklings are as common as hamsters in Britain, are often the only way children can learn about animals and how to take care of them in this densely populated, highly urbanised society.

The Professional Teachers Union says that without experience of real animals, general studies and science courses will become even more book-orientated and inappropriate for young children.

Hong Kong's primary education system is often criticised for its still-persistent chalk-and-talk approach and nature tables and pet corners were among the few ways around the problem.

The first victim of the avian flu virus attended a school which kept chicks and ducklings. Several children and four adults have died since the first case of the new strain - thought to have jumped species from birds to humans - was detected in May.

Although many believe the government has taken drastic action - the number of confirmed bird-flu cases was barely more than 20 when the mass cull was ordered - some parents criticised the health authorities for not ordering the closure of a kindergarten in a densely populated housing estate attended by one girl who has contracted avian flu and four other children who showed similar symptoms.

The parents blamed the outbreak on chicken waste - including feathers and innards - strewn over the playground. The authorities offered the 80 pupils and 14 staff at the kindergarten blood tests for the virus to reassure them, but have said all schools will open as normal for the new term.

There is no evidence that the virulent avian flu strain can be caught by humans from eating eggs or poultry. However, schools have said poultry will be off the lunch menu this term, not least because the mass-cull has pushed up the price of imported frozen chicken.

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