Channel NewsAsia

South Korea's Lunar New Year marred by bird flu worries

While no human infection has been reported yet, there are rising concerns in South Korea that the virus could spread further after the Lunar New Year holidays.

SEOUL: South Korea has confirmed its latest case of H5N8 bird flu virus in a chicken farm in Gyeonggi province, home to the capital Seoul, despite quarantine efforts including the expansion of a poultry cull in the country.

No human infection has been reported yet, but there are rising concerns that the virus could spread further after the Lunar New Year holidays.

A travel ban was imposed for several hours for animals, people and vehicles from areas in South Korea infected with the bird flu.

More than 600,000 poultry have already been slaughtered since the outbreak was first detected on January 16.

Farmers near those areas were very concerned.

"It's painful to see so many ducks and chickens being buried. It's like our crops we grew for one year all going to waste. This is something that should not happen again," said Park Sung-il, a farmer.

Nearly one more million farm birds are expected to be killed.

These efforts have been undertaken to prevent the spread of the bird flu -- especially during the Lunar New Year holiday that lasts from January 30 to February 2 in South Korea.

Millions of people travel to their hometowns -- many in rural areas -- during this festive season to meet relatives and pay respects to their ancestors' graves.

"We urge people not to go to migratory areas if possible as that could spread the virus. We urge them to be cautious and also not go to poultry areas," said Kwon Jae-han, an official at the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The outbreak is the first since 2011, when more than six million poultry were culled at about 280 farms. But this is the first time that South Korea has seen the H5N8 virus -- previously only seen in Europe and the US.

Ministry officials have said the H5N8 strain, unlike other strains of bird flu, poses little immediate threat to humans. However, more and more Koreans are starting to worry.

Restaurants selling ducks are seeing a drastic drop in the number of customers. Supermarkets are also affected and some places have seen as much as a 30 per cent drop in the sales of chicken.

The Lunar New Year period is going to be a crucial test as to whether the authorities can keep the outbreak under control or if it will spread nationwide. 

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