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Humans Working On Chicken Cull At High Risk - FAO

Humans Working On Chicken Cull At High Risk To Flu


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Humans are in "extremely high" risk of additional deaths by bird flu in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia because many do not wear protective clothing while collecting and burying millions of diseased chickens, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Wicker or rattan baskets "contaminated with feces" are also being used to move live chickens to and from markets, risking a spread of the deadly infection to animals and people every time the baskets are brought back to farms.

At least eight people died from bird flu in Vietnam and Thailand after officials failed to protect their citizens while haughtily assuring them the virus was not present.

Ten countries have reluctantly reported bird flu strains including Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

"If you saw the films on CNN and BBC, you saw that the people were handling these [chickens] and disposing of these chickens without any protective clothing, wearing no mask, wearing no goggles," said Hans Wagner, FAO's Bangkok-based Senior Regional Animal Production and Health Officer, in a recorded interview.

"If these are infected chickens, then the risk that they [chicken farmers] contract the disease through droplet infection is extremely high," Mr. Wagner said.

"So our strong recommendation is that everyone who works on disposing of these chickens, wear appropriate protective gear. That gear is in the [U.N.] guidelines and is: wearing goggles, wearing mask, wearing gowns, wearing rubber boots and after every day to dispose of all of this gear and put on new ones."

In Thailand, some soldiers, culling teams and prisoners who are slaughtering chickens received some protective gear -- including plastic shower caps -- but many rural people cannot afford such protection, especially if it should be thrown away each day and replaced.

More than 20 million chickens have been slaughtered in Thailand alone.

Traditional baskets, used for moving animals to and from markets throughout Asia, also increase the risk of more chickens and people dying from bird flu.

"If you go here to the live poultry market, you see that one way of transporting the poultry is in wicker baskets. Now these wicker baskets, they get contaminated with feces. They get contaminated, or they get in contact, with maybe-infected chickens in the market.

"These wicker baskets then go back to the farms without being de-infected, without being burned, so they are at risk of bringing diseases back into the farm," the U.N. official said.

Infected migratory birds flying south for the winter from freezing, northern countries might also be spreading the disease to chickens in tropical Southeast Asia, Pakistan and elsewhere when the virus is dropped from the sky via excrement or deposited after foreign birds touch down and forage for food near chicken farms.

An editorial cartoon in Tuesday's (Jan. 27) Bangkok Post portrayed flying birds dropping bombs labeled "H5N1" -- a strain of bird flu also fatal to humans -- on a hapless planet Earth.

"You have to avoid the contact of wild birds, migratory birds, with your domestic birds," Mr. Wagner said.

Chicken farms must always be shut off from the outside world, and nets and fences must block all area where foreign birds can land or swim to reach chickens, he said.

Thailand and other Asian countries failed to protect most of their chickens in that way because such defenses were too expensive for family-run chicken farms.

"It is a very traditional way with open housing" for chickens in Southeast Asia, the U.N. official said.

The corporate-run chicken industry has special zones and sealed facilities for its chickens and can still make a profit, because they operate on a huge scale, he said.

In Thailand, only one percent of chicken farms have more than 1,000 chickens, which means 99 percent are small-scale farms which cannot afford sophisticated "bio-secure" infrastructure, he said.

Eggs meanwhile are also dangerous because their shells often carry splattered feces which could be infected, he warned.

"The major risk comes definitely from the feces and from the possibility that the eggshells are contaminated with feces," Mr. Wagner earlier told reporters.

"It is calculated that one gram of chicken feces can infect one million birds," he said.

Bird flu appears to be spreading in Asia and it was impossible to predict when the virus could be brought under control, the U.N. official said.

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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