South Korea ordered a hunt for cats Tuesday to see if they were infected with a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu, despite protests by activists fearing animal abuse.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said it would capture 10 stray cats each in 18 places across the country to collect their blood samples.
Concerns have been growing about the transmission of viruses from cats to humans since two AI-infected cats were found dead last week near a chicken farm in Pocheon north of Seoul. Health authorities advise people to avoid close facial contact with stray cats.
Since H5N6, a new type of virus, was detected first on November 16, more than 30 million chickens and ducks have been slaughtered and buried. H5N6 has caused a higher mortality rate than previous cases.
Health officials were cautious about culling cats infected with the virus, but animal rights groups slammed what they called a sloppy government operation to stop the spread of AI.
"Please find another way to safely conduct the examination of stray cats," wrote a Daum user "Middang". Another user "Hanhojung" said, "The government may try to kill every stray dog and cat."
Cats are one of the few species that can get AI. The specific virus that they get is the H5N1 virus which has infected a variety of wild cats including tigers and leopards.
Because the virus infects the lungs of cats, it is one of the preferred model animals to study the effects of H5N1 in humans. The H5N1 virus has not adapted to transfer in between mammals, but there is a fear that this can occur.
Last month, a veterinarian appears to have been infected with a strain of avian flu known as H7N2 that spread among more than 100 cats housed at New York City animal shelters. If confirmed, this would be the first known transmission of this bird flu strain from cat to human.
New York City health officials said the vet has recovered from a mild illness, and there’s no sign that the flu has spread to other workers.
There have only been two previous documented cases of transmission of the avian flu subtype to humans in the United States, and neither was linked to cats or to other humans.