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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 April 2006, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Bird flu lessons from Vietnam
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam

Bui Van Danh at his farm
I culled my birds, because my life is more important than money
Bui Van Danh

Bird flu may be a new problem for poultry farms in Europe and Africa, but Vietnamese farmers like Bui Van Danh are much more familiar with the deadly H5N1 virus.

"At the beginning, I didn't know much about bird flu," said Mr Danh, standing next to his row of chicken sheds in the Mekong delta, southern Vietnam.

"But in the past few years I've learnt a lot," he said, "and now I watch the news to see where else it's spread."

Vietnam has the dubious accolade of being the country worst affected by bird flu, with 42 human deaths since 2003.

But after three separate outbreaks in as many years, the country has been disease-free since December 2005, and praised internationally for its quick and comprehensive response.

So how did farmers like Mr Danh manage to get rid of bird flu - and can poultry producers in Europe, with their huge bird farms and modern methods, learn anything from Vietnam's experience?

Political priority

Dr Hans Troedsson, a World Health Organisation representative in Hanoi, believes that one key lesson is the importance of high-level government commitment.

"You should always start with widespread culling," he said. "Rapid action to cull poultry was taken in Vietnam, and that was because of decisions at prime ministerial level."

Dr Troedsson also emphasised the importance of educating local people, something which Vietnam was initially slow at doing, but has now taken fully onboard.

Sign on a Vietnamese street warning people to cook chicken properly before eating it
Vietnam's authorities are keen to educate people about bird flu

During the first outbreak, at the end of 2003, Mr Danh was ordered to destroy his seemingly healthy chickens because he was living in an affected area.

"I had 11,000 chickens, and I had to burn all of them," he said bleakly. "I was given compensation but I still felt very sad - and I also felt angry as I didn't really understand why I had to do it."

But since then, the authorities have organised a nationwide education programme, with information broadcast on national media and billboards around the country.

Local meetings were organised, where doctors and agricultural experts explained about the disease.

"It's important that people know to seek help at an early stage of the illness," said Dr Troedsson. "In the first year of the outbreak there was a high mortality rate in Vietnam, but it got better as people became more educated."

Nguyen Trung, head of Ho Chi Minh City's agriculture department, said it was also important to encourage farmers to change certain practices.

"The best two measures farmers can do are cover their chickens inside a special building, and bury chicken waste so it doesn't get into the river system," he said.

Backyard farming

While Europe can undoubtedly learn from Vietnam's experiences, there are also many differences between Asian and European methods of raising poultry that make direct comparisons misleading.

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About a third of Vietnamese households keep chickens or ducks, many in their backyards, while poultry production in Europe is almost exclusively confined to large-scale farms.

This means that many more Vietnamese come into regular contact with birds, increasing the chance of the disease spreading to humans.

"Ideally we are encouraging people not to raise chickens in their backyards. But for those who do, we are asking them to keep their birds separate from where the family lives," said Dr Truong Giang, deputy director of the health department in Ho Chi Minh City.

Dr Truong Giang
Dr Truong Giang loves birds but sees the importance of mass culling

The fact that chickens are on virtually every street corner in many parts of rural Asia also has another consequence - it makes containing bird flu much harder.

In the large, relatively isolated, bird flu farms of Europe, it may well be possible to terminate an outbreak by simply culling that one flock.

But in Asia, the situation is far more complicated. During Vietnam's third outbreak in 2005, the authorities realised that the virus was spreading too quickly to be stamped out by selective culling alone, so a nationwide vaccination programme was introduced as well.

Migratory birds

There is much that scientists have yet to learn about bird flu, and one of the key mysteries involves the significance of wild birds in spreading the disease to domestic poultry.

Most of the outbreaks in Europe have involved migratory birds on flight paths from other affected countries.

It is virtually impossible to monitor this exchange in Asia, where wild birds and domestic birds often mingle freely.

Such monitoring can only really be done in Europe, where it is easier to isolate domestic poultry.

Maybe the best piece of advice Vietnamese farmers can give is that, with prompt, decisive action, it is possible to survive a dreaded outbreak.

"The first time it came to this area, I was very scared," said Mr Danh. "But I culled my birds, because my life is more important than money.

"I thought that, if I survived, I could always build up the farm again," he said.

And Mr Danh has done exactly that. He now has 7,000 birds and is looking forward to the future for the first time in years.




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