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China begins culling as bird flu spreads

A new strain of bird flu is wreaking havoc in China as the death toll from the virus increases to six.

Chickens.

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG - Chinese authorities were slaughtering birds at a poultry market in the financial hub Shanghai as the death toll from a new strain of bird flu mounted to six on Friday, spreading concern overseas and sparking a sell-off on Hong Kong's share market.

State news agency Xinhua said the Huhuai market for live birds in Shanghai had been shut down and birds were being culled after authorities detected the H7N9 virus from samples of pigeons in the market.

All of the 14 reported infections from the H7N9 bird flu strain have been in eastern China and at least four of the dead are in Shanghai, a city of 23 million people and the showpiece of China's vibrant economy.

Xinhua did not say how many birds would be culled.

In Hong Kong, shares tumbled to a four-month low on Friday on worries that the new strain of bird flu could hurt the local economy.

"The bird flu issue is at the top of people's minds now," said Alfred Chan, chief dealer at Cheer Pearl Investment in Hong Kong.

Chinese airlines were among the biggest percentage losers on the day, including China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Air China. Cathay Pacific also fell.

The strain does not appear to be transmitted from human to human but Hong Kong airport authorities said they were taking precautions. Vietnam banned imports of Chinese poultry.

In Japan, airports have put up posters at entry points warning all passengers from China to seek medical attention if they have flu-like symptoms.

In the United States, the White House said it was monitoring the situation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it had started work on a vaccine if it was needed. It would take five to six months to begin commercial production.

With the fear that a SARS-like epidemic could re-emerge, China said it was pulling out the stops to combat the virus.

"(China) will strengthen its leadership in combating the virus ... and coordinate and deploy the entire nation's health system to combat the virus," the Health Ministry said in a statement on its website.