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Outbreak (with Saad Hammadi)

Ever since the news of an outbreak of avian influenza broke on January 22, the prices of farm chicken and eggs have marked a sharp decline. Although there has so far been no report of transmission of the H5N1 virus to human in any of the districts where avian influenza was found in poultry farms, the customers have stopped buying chicken. As an immediate precautionary measure, the government has asked people not to buy chicken from street vendors or hawkers. The government has also quarantined affected farms, culled chicken and destroyed eggs by the thousand.

Meanwhile, poultry experts, researchers and epidemiologists have sought to calm widespread fear of bird-to-human transmission of the deadly virus. They have prescribed ways and manners in which farm chicken and eggs should be handled to keep off the harm’s way. They say eggs should be washed with soap or detergent and then boiled while the chicken should be handled with gloves on, skinned properly and boiled for a few minutes before dressing. The chicken should be cooked in temperature not less than 70 degrees Celsius, they say quoting the World Health Organisation recommendations.

Such advisories have not calmed the fear, though, and people have largely stopped buying chicken and eggs, sending the poultry market on a downward slope. The prices of broilers have gone down by at least Tk 10 in only three days since January 29. Poultry farmers have been hit hard, as the spread of avian influenza is no longer confined to one single specie.

Sources in the poultry industry claim that the initial outbreak of avian influenza in 2005 was limited to ducks but the government suppressed information of the spread of the H5N2 strand of the virus. ‘Had such secrecy not been maintained and had proper actions been taken by the government, the problem would not have snowballed into a crisis,’ says Dr MM Khan, technical adviser to the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Association. ‘Lack of surveillance has also contributed to the crisis, as bird flu was first reported in February 2007.’

Experts claim that a few thousand ducks and crows have died of avian influenza in the past ten days. Allegations have it that although the industry insiders had voiced concern about a possible outbreak as early as in 2003 the government was not convinced and did not take any precautionary step. Until the last official report on January 30, 97 poultry farms were identified with the deadly disease in 48 upazilas and 30 districts. Over three lakh chickens were culled in the process in 134 farms abiding by the radius calculation for culling.

Apart from culling, every day there have been reports of fowls and crows dying in different parts of the country. Although Bangladesh’s testing laboratories are not equipped to the extent of identifying the pathogens, the death symptoms of the fowls reveal that the H5 avian influenza has taken the form of high pathogenic. In case of high pathogenic influenza the fowls usually die within 48 hours of the outbreak and such has been happening, MM Khan says. ‘The Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute is the lone laboratory capable of detecting H5N1 but cannot specify its pathogen,’ he says. The high pathogenic H5 is vulnerable of getting transmitted to human through air and in close contact between the person and the infected bird.

The reason why the H5 influenza is at an alarming level is that it has transmitted among crows – one of the predominant local birds, fear experts. ‘At this stage the wastes, blood and organs of chicken should be dumped at a safe location so that crows or other animal species do not suck them and become infected,’ says Dr Habibur Rahman of the pathology department at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh.

‘Hygiene for chick feeds should be carefully maintained. It is high time the poultry farms quarantined their chickens as the disease is spreading through the air,’ he says.

‘The virus has not become contagious to humans but has managed to persist in parts of Asia, Africa and probably Europe. It could still trigger a human influenza pandemic,’ says Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Rampant irregularities in surveillance and misuse of funds by the government’s Department of Livestock Services have allowed the disease to spread within the country, allege poultry industry insiders.

‘The government has prepared a number of projects on bird flu prevention and surveillance. Although funds were received, their implementation has hardly taken place,’ says a source.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has agreed to provide the government with $16 million for a five-year ‘Avian Influenza Preparedness and Response’ project. ‘Half a million dollar has already been sanctioned by the World Bank for 2007-2008,’ says a World Bank source. The government has also received $150,000 on January 18 from the Multi-Donor Trust Fund out of $2 million for a project styled ‘Avian and Human Influenza Facility’.

‘It is high time the government introduced vaccination in the country to protect the poultry market, which is worth more than Tk 4,000 crore,’ says Kazi Zahedul Hasan, managing director of Kazi Farms Limited.

Since 2004, culling has no longer been considered acceptable on economic and ethical reasons for developing countries, MM Khan.

The government has, meanwhile, put a bar on importing vaccines and other logistics in the country on independent initiative, say poultry farmers.

The deadly virus is spreading inside the country but Bangladesh is in a better position than India, says Dr Salehuddin Khan, a director with the livestock department. ‘The surveillance is a continuous process and had we not been on the ball to control the situation it would have turned into havoc,’ he says.

Government officials claim that winter is conducive for the spread of the disease. Salehuddin is hopeful that by February its intensity will decline. He says the government is in the process of beginning door-to-door surveillance for the country 1.50 lakh poultry farms.

‘The steps taken by the government are for one not being explained properly,’ says MM Khan. ‘Secondly, they are not immediate and concrete enough to put an end to this alarming state. There is an absence of technical knowledge and awareness among the government about effective vaccination to control the bird flu,’

The livestock ministry is, however, not convinced about the effectiveness of vaccination. ‘Considering the strain of the virus, vaccination may not be an effective tool,’ says Sunil Chandra Ghosh, director general of the livestock department. ‘It is also a fact that once the vaccination is applied the disease will gain permanence and has the chance to become endemic.’

‘A number of poultry farms have recently started exporting poultry products to some Middle East countries, the north-eastern region of India and Nepal, and the present outbreak will hit hard this effort,’ says MM Khan. ‘Moreover, for the thousands of farms across the country, the livelihood is certainly at stake. While chickens are being culled, there has not been any effort to provide provisions for these farms to recoup the losses.’

‘The government is providing compensation to every farms culled counting on the number of chickens. The compensation is between Tk 70 and Tk 80 varying on the criterions like backyard poultry and commercial layer,’ says Sunil. Compensation is never made at 100 per cent and following the international standard culling compensation is no more than a dollar, he adds.

However, industry insiders point out that there is enough scope for corruption in the compensation process. In the process of disbursing compensation, field officials not only take bribe for disbursement of compensation but also allow farmers to market unchecked poultry chicken.

According to BRAC officials, different micro-credit providers have provided credit to the industry and these people are likely to face recovery crisis in the wake of the recent invasion of bird flu in Bangladesh.

Amidst all the aides and assistance the bird flu outbreak has put Bangladesh’s poultry industry in an unstable situation.

A more alarming situation has been noticed across the border areas. While India has been hit hard by bird flu, Bangladesh has more risk to face. At least 17 out of the 26 affected districts border on the Indian state.

The livestock ministry has informed the border forces to seal entrance for poultry and eggs from India. ‘Smuggling of Indian chickens in this season cannot be eliminated completely,’ said a BDR source.

‘The border between Bangladesh and India stretches to around 4,500 kilometres while this whole distance is covered by 500 border outposts each having only 15 persons,’ said an official of the BDR. He pointed out that around eight to nine kilometres is covered by only 15 persons and that also without any vehicles to aid them.

However, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Rifles claims strict restrictions on cross-border movement of poultry and eggs are in place and vigorously enforced.

India’s West Bengal state is currently struggling to cope with its own bird flu outbreak – described as the third and worst outbreak to strike in India since 2006. Eleven of West Bengal’s 19 districts have now been affected, resulting in over 50,000 birds being culled.

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