Avian influenza threatens shutdown of ice fishing festivals

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Avian influenza threatens shutdown of ice fishing festivals

As the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza spreads across counties, popular ice fishing festivals in Gangwon are on the verge of being shut down just weeks before their scheduled start dates.

The Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency confirmed on Sunday five chickens that died at a farm in Cheorwon County, Gangwon, were infected with the H5N6 avian influenza virus.

The news is worrying to government officials of Hwacheon County, which sits just next to Cheorwon. Hwacheon County Office is scheduled to hold its annual trout fishing and ice festival from Jan. 7 to 29.

The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival has long been celebrated as having helped revive the county’s economy.

The number of participants grew from 220,000 in 2003, the festival’s first year, to 1.54 million last January. The last festival brought the county some 99.1 billion won ($84.7 million) in direct economic benefits.

Starting today, the Cheorwon County Office will limit traffic between Cheorwon and Hwacheon at three locations. The county health authorities have also begun sterilizing vehicles that pass through the county.

“The county office has been checking thoroughly whether the trucks and vehicles coming into Hwacheon from Cheorwon have been sterilized,” said Choi Tae-soo, director of forestry and farming at Hwacheon County Office. “The chicken and duck farms in Hwacheon are not too big, so as long as the sterilization process remains strong, we should be able to hold the festival as planned.”

As of November, the Gangwon provincial government says, Hwacheon has raised 483,600 chickens and ducks at 433 farms.

Residents of Hongcheon County Office in Gangwon are also concerned, as Hongcheon holds an annual ice festival on the Hongcheon River where participants can go ice fishing, sledding and catch trout with one’s bare hands. This year’s festival is scheduled to begin on Dec. 30.

The festival was cancelled last year when the river did not freeze due to abnormally high temperatures.

Hongcheon County Office has been running the sterilization center in the county at all hours since Nov. 30. If avian influenza breaks out nearby, the county office plans to ban movement into the county from infected regions.

The county grows some 377,000 chickens and ducks in 829 farms, according to the county office.

“If the ice festival is cancelled for the second year in a row,” said Chun Myung-joon, an official of the Hongcheon County Office, “county residents will have to bear the brunt of the economic losses. The local governments must do all they can to stop the spread of avian influenza.”

According to the county office, the festival in 2014 gathered 506,000 participants, and had a direct economic impact of 36.8 billion won, of which some 10 percent went directly to the local residents.

This is the first time Korea has reported an outbreak of the H5N6 avian influenza virus. The strain of the virus was first discovered on Oct. 28 in the feces of migratory birds in Cheonan, South Chungcheong. The virus is spreading rapidly, reaching Yangju, Gyeonggi, just 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) from the capital in weeks.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that the H5N6 strain spreading in Korea is a different variation of the H5N6 strain in China that infected 15 and killed 9 since 2014, and that the strain in Korea is not likely to develop into one that can possibly infect humans.

BY PARK JIN-HO, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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