Hong Kong is stepping up its surveillance of people and poultry in response to the growing number of cases of avian flu in neighbouring mainland China.

Enhanced poultry testing measures, including more frequent farm inspections and bigger sample sizes, were announced following an emergency meeting over the weekend with mainland Chinese, Macau and Hong Kong officials.

Hong Kong, which recently marked the 10-year anniversary of the SARS pandemic that killed 299 people in the city, also intends to do faster testing for the H7N9 virus in live poultry imports at the border control point with China.

The secretary for food and health, Ko Wing-man, toured the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale poultry market Monday morning and told reporters the enhanced and rapid testing would begin Thursday. Live imports will be held at the market and only allowed for sale after the test results come back negative, he said. Thirty samples from every 1,000 birds will be tested and the results will be returned within four hours.

Hong Kong's government has said it considers the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus to be low but it has still activated its preparedness plan for an influenza pandemic, and it is currently implementing measures at the "alert" level. Ko said it would be elevated to the "serious" level if any poultry tests positive or any human cases of the H7N9 virus are found.

"At the same time, we will also carry out partial or total culling of live poultry in Hong Kong as well as suspending the import of live poultry into Hong Kong," he said. Ko said there are adequate biosecurity measures in place at the wholesale poultry market to prevent bird-to-bird transmission.

The health department is assuring people that it will be transparent and will share information about any cases of the illness. That promise is borne out of the legacy of SARS, when officials in Hong Kong and China were accused of hiding the true severity of the respiratory outbreak that infected more than 1,750 in Hong Kong alone.

Now the government posts news releases online with details about the cases in China, details about suspected cases in Hong Kong, letters and guidelines for health-care workers and the public, and other information that is updated on a daily basis.

Random temperature checks

In addition to stepped up poultry surveillance, Hong Kong has also increased its public health surveillance by sending more staff to immigration control points to conduct random temperature checks with hand-held devices. Hong Kong also uses infrared body temperature scanning equipment, technology that was bought in the wake of SARS.

Hospitals are increasing infection control measures and the health department sent a team of experts to Shanghai to meet with their counterparts so they can learn how the illness is being treated there.

Ko said Hong Kong has the capacity to handle a pandemic.

"After the outbreak of SARS in 2003, the public hospitals have been gradually building up their capacity for isolation facilities," he said last week. "Up to this moment, there are a total of 1,400 isolation beds in the Hospital Authority. This is in line with our strategy to identify and isolate suspected cases early and carry out rapid testing as soon as possible."

The current number of isolation beds is double what it was during the SARS crisis.

No cases of the new strain of the influenza virus have been detected in Hong Kong. A seven-year-old girl who had recently travelled to areas of mainland China with confirmed cases and was experiencing symptoms was isolated at a hospital, but tests came back negative. She had stayed at a farm with poultry during her travels with her family.

A 15-month-old baby who was also admitted to hospital after experiencing symptoms after a visit to a mainland poultry farm also tested negative and is in stable condition.

The virus is believed to have originated in pigeons, and it has made the jump to humans. So far 24 people in eastern China have been infected and of those seven have died. Officials don’t believe there has been any human-to-human transmission.

Hong Kong's government is asking the public to be vigilant and is advising residents who have recently travelled to China, particularly to Shanghai, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to wear facemasks and seek medical attention if they experience fever or other flu symptoms. The public is also being told to avoid direct contact with poultry and birds.

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Health workers slaughter chickens at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. Hong Kong health authorities are slaughtering more than 17,000 chickens at a market after a chicken carcass there was found to be infected with bird flu. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) h7n9 bird flu hong kong

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  • Chinese health workers collect the bags of dead chickens at Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5, 2013. Authorities in Shanghai began the mass slaughter of poultry at a market after the H7N9 bird flu virus, which has killed five people in China, was detected there, state media said.

  • Workers in protective clothing move bags out from a wholesale market during a culling operation as authorities detected a new bird flu strain in pigeons being sold for meat at the market in Shanghai, China, Friday April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • Workers in protective clothing chat during a culling operation as authorities detected the new bird flu strain in pigeons being sold for meat at a wholesale market in Shanghai on Friday April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • A Chinese policeman wears a mask as he guards an access to a wholesale market where authorities are culling poultry after the new bird flu strain was detected there in pigeons being sold for meat in Shanghai on Friday April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • In this photo taken Friday, April 5, 2013, a poultry vendor walks past his empty shop at a wholesale market in Shanghai. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • In this photo taken Friday, April 5, 2013, a cat looks at an empty poultry shop at a wholesale market in Shanghai. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • In this photo taken Friday April 5, 2013, a poultry vendor sits in front of his empty shop at a wholesale market in Shanghai. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • TAIWAN-CHINA-HEALTH-FLU

    A nurse (R) introduces the front desk for the negative pressure isolation rooms section, which will be used to treat potential H7N9 avian influenza patients, at Taipei Hoping Hospital on April 6, 2013. Taiwan enhanced its level of alert against bird flu and set up a contingency centre on April 3 after reports in mainland China of new infections from a new strain of avian influenza. The new infections alarmed the authorities in Taiwan, which is separated from the Chinese mainland only by a 180-kilometre (111.6 miles) strait and which has seen a dramatic influx of 2.6 million Chinese visitors last year due to the fast warming ties between Taipei and Beijing.

  • TAIWAN-CHINA-HEALTH-FLU

    A nurse speaks on the phone next to a monitor showing an empty bed inside a negative pressure isolation room, which will be used to treat potential H7N9 avian influenza patients, at Taipei Hoping Hospital on April 6, 2013. Taiwan enhanced its level of alert against bird flu and set up a contingency centre on April 3 after reports in mainland China of new infections from a new strain of avian influenza. The new infections alarmed the authorities in Taiwan, which is separated from the Chinese mainland only by a 180-kilometre (111.6 miles) strait and which has seen a dramatic influx of 2.6 million Chinese visitors last year due to the fast warming ties between Taipei and Beijing.

  • Prepared ducks are hung to be cooked at a restaurant in Shanghai, China on Friday, April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from the new bird flu H7N9 strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat. The first cases were announced Sunday.

  • In this April 3, 2013 photo, a worker pushes a cart as live pigeons are sold at a cage at a poultry wholesale market in Shanghai China. China announced a sixth death from the new bird flu H7N9 strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat. The first cases were announced Sunday.

  • Free-range chickens are seen in Shanghai, China, on Friday, April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from the new bird flu H7N9 strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat. The first cases were announced Sunday.

  • A worker catches a live chicken at a poultry market in Shanghai, China on Friday, April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from the new bird flu H7N9 strain Friday, while authorities in Shanghai halted the sale of live fowl and slaughtered all poultry at a market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat. The first cases were announced Sunday.

  • Workers in protective clothing move bags out from a wholesale market during a culling operation as authorities detected the new bird flu strain in pigeons being sold for meat at the market in Shanghai on Friday April 5, 2013. China announced a sixth death from a new bird flu strain Friday, while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • Chickens are sold at a poultry market in Shanghai, China on Friday, April 5, 2013. China announced Friday a sixth death from a new bird flu strain while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • Chickens are seen at a cage as they are sold at a poultry market in Shanghai, China on Friday, April 5, 2013. China announced Friday a sixth death from a new bird flu strain while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • A vender leans on a cage at a poultry market in Shanghai, China on Friday, April 5, 2013. China announced Friday a sixth death from a new bird flu strain while authorities carried out the slaughter of all poultry at a Shanghai market where the virus was detected in pigeons being sold for meat.

  • Chinese health workers collect the bags of dead chickens at Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5, 2013. Authorities in Shanghai began the mass slaughter of poultry at a market after the H7N9 bird flu virus, which has killed five people in China, was detected there, state media said.

  • A policeman stands guard as Chinese health workers collect the bags of dead chickens at Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5, 2013. Authorities in Shanghai began the mass slaughter of poultry at a market after the H7N9 bird flu virus, which has killed five people in China, was detected there, state media said.

  • Chinese health workers collect the bags of dead chickens at Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5, 2013. Authorities in Shanghai began the mass slaughter of poultry at a market after the H7N9 bird flu virus, which has killed five people in China, was detected there, state media said.

  • A policeman goes after a chicken that broke loose as Chinese health workers started culling chickens at Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5, 2013. Authorities in Shanghai began the mass slaughter of poultry at a market after the H7N9 bird flu virus, which has killed five people in China, was detected there, state media said.

  • Chinese health workers collect dead chickens at Huhuai wholesale agricultural market in Shanghai on April 5, 2013. Authorities in Shanghai began the mass slaughter of poultry at a market after the H7N9 bird flu virus, which has killed five people in China, was detected there, state media said.