Lull in bird flu no cause for complacency - experts

Despite fewer outbreaks of bird flu in the first half of April, health experts in Bangladesh warn the threat is far from over.

According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, since the beginning of this year there have been 215 reported outbreaks of the virus in the densely populated country, including 46 in January, 93 in February and 70 in March.

In the first two weeks of April there have been six reported cases of the deadly virus.

“The H5N1 virus can hide itself in animal and human bodies for weeks or even months. The relatively low incidence of outbreaks in recent weeks does not mean it is waning. It may erupt any day,” Habibur Rahman of Bangladesh Agricultural University said.

“The nature of the virus and its behaviour in recent years suggests that it might resurface any time anywhere in the country,” Mushtuque Ahmed, a senior researcher at the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research said. ”People need to be very careful in handling poultry.”

Since the first case of the virus was reported in March 2007 on the outskirts of Dhaka, over 1.6 million chickens have been culled at 546 farms in the country, including 504 commercial and 42 private or backyard farms.

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The issue underscores the importance of stricter bio-security measures.

“Strict bio-security [separating sick flocks from healthy ones, keeping farms disinfected, safe disposal of poultry faeces and maintenance of stringent hygienic practices by all who handle poultry] has to be maintained round the clock,” Rahman said.

But such measures are not practiced widely in backyard or smaller farms, where the vast majority of the country’s poultry production takes place.

“Only large farms do it. Backyard farmers do not even know why it is at all necessary,” Gautam Paul, a poultry farm owner in the southern city of Chittagong, said.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Bio-security - the most effective deterrent against the spread of bird flu - is lowest in urban restaurants like this

That reality in turn further highlights the need for greater awareness.

“If those who process chicken for cooking properly wash their hands with soap at every stage of slaughtering, chopping and cooking, they do not need to be afraid of infections,” Rahman explained.

Farmers see ray of hope

Meanwhile, poultry farmers hope the lull in reported cases this month may help their industry.

“Six months ago, I would sell 20-25 chickens a day, but sales dropped after bird flu,” Sohel Mia, one chicken shop owner at the Amtali bazar, Shibganj sub-district, northwestern Bogra District said.

By mid March, sales were practically zero, with the price of a kilo of chicken dropping from around US$1.40 a kilo to about 88 US cents, Mia explained.

“The market has been improving over the last few days. Last week, I was selling 10 to 12 chickens a day. People are buying again. The scare is fading and fresh supplies are also coming,” the 16-year-old told IRIN.

Outbreaks of the deadly virus had badly shaken the country’s poultry sector with reported losses of over $600 million, as well as the closure of thousands of poultry farms.

Industry sources report that some 5 million people are employed in the sector, which accounts for 1.6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
More than 1.6 million chickens have already been culled

“The rise in poultry consumption has pushed poultry prices up. But we are still selling day-old chicks below production cost,” said Kazi Zahedul Hasan, managing director of the country's biggest poultry breeder, Kazi Farms.

“If the present price sustains for the next two weeks, owners of many closed farms will be encouraged to resume production,” Hasan said.

“Our sales are rising but the supply of birds needs to increase,” said Kutubuddin Mia, a poultry seller at Dhaka’s Khilgaon kitchen market, adding that the demand for poultry and eggs was growing slowly but steadily.

Since 2003, 379 people have been infected with bird flu in 14 countries, according to the World Health Organization. Of these, 239 died, the vast majority of them in Asia.

No human bird flu cases have been reported in Bangladesh to date.