HONG KONG, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Hong Kong began culling 20,000 chickens and suspended imports of fresh poultry from mainland China for 21 days on Tuesday after the discovery of the H7N9 bird flu virus in a batch of live chicken from the southern province of Guangdong.
The government order took effect two days before celebrations begin for Chinese New Year, when poultry sellers generally anticipate a boom.
Authorities also ordered the closure of the wholesale poultry market, where the virus was discovered, for 21 days until February 18 for cleaning and disinfection. Local farms were banned from supplying live chickens to the market.
"Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department officers will inspect all the local chicken farms and collect more samples for testing to ensure that local farms are not affected by H7 avian influenza," Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said in a statement.
The H7N9 virus passes between birds, but cases in humans have so far not shown evidence of sustained human-to-human infection, according to the World Health Organization.
Experts have urged health authorities worldwide to be alert to detect the H7N9 virus, which is highly pathogenic in humans and could develop the ability to spread easily among humans, causing an influenza pandemic and severe economic losses.
Two people infected with H7N9 bird flu have died in Hong Kong and a third patient is being treated. All three were infected during visits to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The H7N9 bird flu virus emerged in March last year and has so far infected at least 240 people in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong Department of Health.
China's official Xinhua news agency, citing the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said 19 people had been died of the flu in China this year.
China's Health and Family Planning Commission reported a further nine cases of H7N9 bird flu to the World Health Organization on Sunday and Monday.
Hong Kong last suspended live poultry imports in 2011 after a dead chicken tested positive for the H5N1 strain of bird flu at the same market. (Editing by Ron Popeski)