The challenges in eradicating a virus now entrenched in a region crowded with both people and poultry will be the focus of a regional bird flu conference that opens Wednesday February 23 in HCM City.
When scores of chickens began dying from bird flu on Bui Van Dung’s Mekong Delta farm last year, he was forced to destroy his entire flock of 23,000 birds in a bid to keep the disease from spreading. He gambled on new hatchlings. But early this year bird flu re-emerged in yet another outbreak -a sign that the virus has become endemic in Vietnam’s poultry stock.
“It may hit me again, but I have no other choice” but to raise chickens, he said, walking amid a row of chicken cages on his small farm. “What else can I do?”
The meeting by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health will be looking at ways the international community can coordinate a long-term strategy to fight the disease, now that it is seen as more than a flash in the epidemiological pan.
That is significant because bird flu, if it mutates through steady contact with people to spread easily between humans, holds the potential to rival some of the fearsome flu pandemics of the last century, which killed tens of millions of people.
So far, 45 people from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia have died from the H5N1 strain of the virus, though all but one case is believed to have been transmitted through contact with sick birds.
“The difference is that last year we were looking at it as a situation of an outbreak. Now we know that avian influenza is a problem that’s going to be here to stay,” said Anton Rychener, head of the UN agency in Hanoi. “The longer we wait to address this problem jointly, the greater the danger becomes that the virus will mutate with the human influenza virus and we have a pandemic.”
The H5N1 strain of the virus, first reported in Vietnam in late 2003, swept through 10 countries in Asia last year, devastating poultry farms and forcing the slaughter of about 100 million birds.
Vietnam and Thailand have been hardest hit after two more outbreaks, despite declarations from governments that the disease had been eliminated. Vietnam has the region’s highest number of deaths, with 32 in the past year. Thailand reported 12 fatalities, while Cambodia had one.
Last month, the Hanoi government sent a letter to the United Nations asking for international assistance to stem the disease and help coordinate foreign assistance to Vietnam.
“Countries like Vietnam and Thailand are taking it very seriously. But I’m disappointed that the international community hasn’t done more,” said Hans Troedsson, head of the WHO in Vietnam. “If this happened in Europe or North America, it would have gotten a completely different response. Here it’s seen as an ‘Asian problem.â€™”
The UN agencies believe the international community should throw resources and funding at a disease that could potentially threaten the world. The major pandemics of the past century -the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, the 1957 Asian flu and 1968 Hong Kong flu -killed more than 50 million people combined. UN officials said an outbreak of a potential mutant bird flu could claim between 2 million and 100 million lives.
The conference will be looking at a variety of issues, including mass vaccinations, flu research, farm hygiene, animal husbandry practices, and improving coordination between animal health and human health agencies.
One of the biggest challenges will be revamping how most farms operate in Asia, where chickens are packed into farmyards with other livestock and hygiene is minimal.
“Practically the entire rural area (in Vietnam) is one big farm where humans, ducks, pigs, geese roam together,” said Rychener.
Most chickens in Vietnam are not raised in commercial farms but in back yards as a food supplement or extra source of income. In places like southern Long An province, the Mekong Delta’s largest poultry producer, veterinary officials admit it would be difficult to enforce many precautions.
“It’s tradition here to raise five or 10 chickens in your home. That would be very hard to ban,” said veterinary official Nguyen Thanh Tam.
But some government measures have begun to take root. Chicken farmer Dung, who lost nearly a decade’s worth of savings last year, now disinfects cages daily and doesn’t allow strangers to walk through the farm. His chickens are tested every other month for bird flu. So far, his 10,000 birds are healthy.