Bird flu threatens poultry industry, livelihoods

Bangladesh’s poultry industry faces possible peril as bird flu spreads throughout the country: As of 5 February, H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks have been reported in 37 of the country’s 64 districts.

The industry is now confronted with its greatest challenge since large-scale poultry farming was first introduced in the 1980s.

All six divisional towns - Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal and Sylhet - have been affected, with chickens, ducks, pigeons, quails and wild cranes reportedly dying in their thousands. Scores of crows have reportedly died after eating the meat of dead chickens.

The authorities have already culled over half a million chickens at 175 poultry farms across the country, including 136 commercial farms and 39 backyard farms.

But despite these efforts, many are not convinced.

“I don’t care what government officials have to say about bird flu,” Aminul Huq, a poultry farmer in northern Bangladesh’s Dinajpur District near the border with India, remarked.

Just last week, over 2,500 birds at his farm died in a single night.

“We are panicked by the alarming spread of the disease. Instead of giving false assurances, the government should provide us with more preventative tools and gear,” Huq said - a call shared by industry experts.

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Millions of livelihoods at risk

“The poultry industry has been registering 20 percent growth over the last few years - the fastest growth rate for any industry in the country,” said Monjur Morshed Khan, treasurer of the Bangladesh Poultry Owners’ Association.

Over 5 million people earn their livelihoods from the country’s 150,000 commercial poultry farms, he explained.

Added to that are another 7.5 million households which maintain small backyard coops that provide almost 70 percent of the country’s annual chicken output.

“All these are threatened by the flu,” warned a clearly anxious Khan, citing a marked drop in poultry product sales.

According to Mesbahuddin Ahmed, a veterinarian in Bangladesh’s central Gazipur District - often referred to as the poultry capital of the country and home to over 5,000 poultry farms - the impact is already being felt.

“Many poultry farms and hatcheries have been closed down. If we fail to prevent [a] bird flu pandemic then this promising industry might face collapse,” Ahmed warned.

“Our resources are limited. We need more trained personnel, more testing laboratories and more personal protective equipment to more effectively control the disease,” he explained.


Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
The remains of several crows and a chicken that reportedly died of bird flu lie in the open in Chittagong, Bangladesh

Criticism of government policy

Khan criticised the culling process now taking place and the way compensation was being paid to affected farmers, hinting at possible corruption.

“All the culling is done at night. The rate and process of payment of compensation are not transparent either,” he said, citing allegations of manipulation in the number of culled birds and the amount of compensation given to owners.

At present, the government’s compensation rate for each full grown chicken is US$1 for commercial farms and $1.20 for backyard poultry.

Scientists express concern

Meanwhile, scientists have also expressed concern over the lack of effective measures being taken to stem the virus’s spread.

“We are not very sure if the flies that feed on dead birds are capable of carrying the virus to our homes. If they do, we are in a great danger,” said Habibur Rahman of Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh.

Rahman is worried about the disposal of poultry faeces, particularly at smaller rural backyard farms and coops.

“The H5N1 virus is spread through nasal and oral secretion and faeces of sick birds. There is no generally followed practice of disposal of chicken waste in our culture. Chicken faeces are not safely disposed [of],” he said.

Still another concern is what is done with the bodies of chickens that die. Most dead backyard poultry are simply thrown into neighbouring ditches, ponds or rivers, meaning the carcasses can spread the disease elsewhere, the academic said.

More public awareness needed

Such factors underscore the importance of a larger nationwide mass media campaign to boost public awareness.

“They [people] should be repeatedly told about the disposal of dead birds, hygienic disposal of chicken faeces, reporting sick and dead birds to local veterinarians. They should be told not to touch dead birds, to wash hands properly and often, keep courtyards clean and separate home chickens from wild or broiler ones,” he said.


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
More than 500,000 chickens have been culled so far

Abdul Mannan, director-general of the Department of Mass Communication, said that over 200 of its district level staff, including district information officers, were already working to do just that, particularly with backyard farmers, most of them women.

“In the remote villages, our announcers are using megaphones to announce instructions. All of them have been trained earlier by UNICEF [the UN Children’s Fund],” he said, conceding, however, that more trained and dedicated manpower was needed.

State-owned Bangladesh TV and a dozen or so private cable TV channels occasionally broadcast programmes on avian influenza, but most observers say they have yet to have the necessary impact.

No human cases so far

At present, some 180 people who worked at H5N1-affected farms - including those government officials involved in the culling of sick birds - are now being monitored by health experts at various hospitals in the country, although to date none have tested positive for the virus.

Moreover, people living in close proximity to sick birds and who later showed symptoms of either fever or flu were also being closely watched, however, no human infection has been found, health experts at Bangladesh’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research said.

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