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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 5, 2005
Factory fowl no answer to bird flu
By Aaron Glantz and Ngoc Nguyen

HANOI - Tuan bought his first 50 chicks less than a month ago, hoping to supplement a meager family income from selling coal and the sewing his wife does.

"My neighbors think I'm crazy what with all this bird flu going around," he said chuckling as he stood by his new coop. "They ask me if I want to breathe my last."

For now, he said, the risks are worth it. "It costs just 4,500 dong [three US cents] to buy a chick," he said. "Free-range chickens fetch almost 50,000."

It is these types of backyard operations that government veterinarians and officials are concerned about, though they concede that most illness has sprung up at factory farms rather than among free-range birds.

The country wants to move production to larger, factory farms, veterinarian Doc Quoc Binh said. He and his wife lead the government-sponsored vaccination program in Bac Ninh, the North Vietnamese province where Tuan lives. Launched in August, the

vaccination program has already administered some 20 million shots, but other measures, such as more efficient poultry management, are also seen as necessary.

Factory farming "will make it easier for us to monitor the chickens' health from the time the chickens are hatched until the time they come out," the veterinarian said. "This is better than each farmer having just a few chickens."

On Monday, Deputy Agriculture Minister Bui Ba Bong indicated to Vietnam's larger neighbors meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brisbane, Australia that his country needed US$50 million to fight bird flu.

Bong told reporters that the money was needed for technical support, especially in the improvement of diagnostic capabilities. At least 91 people have been infected in Vietnam since the outbreak began, and 40 of those have died, the latest a 14-year-old girl who died on October 23 and a 26-year-old-man on October 26 in the central Quang Binh province.

A spokesman from the Ministry of Health said no samples were taken from either victim though he did not say whether this was because facilities were lacking.

Meanwhile, US strategy to contain a possible global avian flu pandemic may involve Vietnam as the ideal location for the manufacture and trial of a human vaccine since the country has recorded the most human deaths so far.

Michael Leavitt, the US Health and Human Services secretary who surveyed Southeast Asia countries in October, offered Vietnamese scientists a plan to organize vaccine trials and support worth $18 million.

International interest stems from fears the bird flu virus could mutate into a strain capable of being transmitted among human beings rather than from bird to man - as has been happening so far.

The outbreak has caused Vietnam to kill tens of millions of birds, and this week the government announced it is perusing new regulations on the raising, slaughtering and selling of fowl and blood pudding in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.

But across the country, small farmers continue to raise poultry in backyards and alleyways, a practice that is difficult to stop.

"It's against Vietnamese custom," the veterinarian said. "Right now, farmers may start out to raise a dozen chickens just to feed the family, and when he becomes more prosperous he might raise more chickens to sell."

That is exactly what Tuan's neighbor, Thanh, did. She started out with a dozen chickens and now she raises fish and pigs as well. In the last season she sold 1,000 chickens - mostly to a single family for a large wedding.

The key to stopping bird flu isn't more large-scale farms, but care for the animals," Thanh said. When she first started raising fowl seven years ago, she said, her chickens sometimes fell ill. "They get weak and thin. One time, a hundred of them got sick and I decided to feed them to my fish."

Over time, she has learned that chicken flu often comes in the fall or winter, and so she no longer raises them then. Thanh has also learned how to keep chickens healthy. When she first buys the chicks, she gives them vitamins to boost their immune system. She feeds them regularly, but doesn't let them eat too much and takes care to cook their feed.

The factory farms do not monitor how much the chickens eat, she said. "They get very fat and unhealthy and they feed them raw food. Free-range chickens are healthier because they get to run around. I pay attention to them and know when they get sick. In the factory, nobody pays attention and it's hard to tell when one is sick."

So far most of the bird flu outbreaks have been in factory farms near Ho Chi Minh City, where large-scale agribusiness has taken off.

While Doc Quoc Binh recognizes that most of the illness popped up in factory farms, he sees an inevitable shift in the way farmers raise livestock, spurring the need to better train the industrial farmers.

"It's not safe to have so many chickens in one place, if the knowledge (level) is not high," he said. "As the country industrializes, farmers are going to need more expertise. And the government can help with that and also with other helpful things like providing medicine as well as disinfectant."

Until such efforts are made, however, Doc Quoc Binh will continue to drive through the villages with a bullhorn advising small proprietors that they can come out and get their fowl vaccinated.

(Inter Press Service)

Bird flu fearsome but fickle (Nov 3, '05)

A dose of double standards over bird flu (Oct 25 '05)

Time the enemy in bird-flu fight (Sep 23 '05)

Something foul with bird flu program (Sep 8, '05)

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