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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 11:44 GMT
Vietnam's battle against bird flu

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Vietnam

More humans have died from the bird flu virus in Vietnam than any other country but, as Jonathan Head discovered, the government there believes it will be able to contain the problem using new vaccines from China.

Veterinary worker sprays disinfectant over live ducks on the back of a motorbike before they enter a local market in Ha Tay province
The government has announced that all 260 million birds in the poultry industry will be inoculated over the next few months

"The Vietnamese people can beat this virus."

Mr Quang, our Foreign Ministry minder, radiated confidence - as no doubt he was required to - in front of journalists.

But he was also articulating the self-belief of a country which once defeated the Japanese, the French and the Americans.

Where other countries are floundering in panic over the arrival of bird flu, Vietnam says it will prevail.

And it is vital that it does.

As the news broke this week of China's first bird flu death, prompting alarm over how many other cases may be hidden there, it is worth remembering that more humans have contracted and died from the virus in Vietnam than anywhere else.

If a global pandemic does get under way, the chances are it will happen in the brilliant green rice paddies of the Mekong and Red River deltas, which lie at either end of this elongated country.

'Mobilised'

There millions of people live cheek-by-jowl with tens of millions of ducks and chickens.

Map of Vietnam

Experts believe the virus is now endemic in Vietnam. It will probably never be wiped out.

The Vietnamese authorities are giving it their best shot, though.

The government has announced that all 260 million birds in the poultry industry will be inoculated over the next few months with new vaccines developed in China.

A near impossible task, you might think, given the number of households which own just a handful of ducks and chickens.

"You see, that's the advantage of living in a communist system," said Nguyen Xuan Vui, the animal health director in Ha Tay, the province we were permitted to visit.

"Once the central government gives the order, the entire country can be mobilised to fight bird flu."

I could think of a few disadvantages too.

Like the secrecy with which the Vietnamese authorities smothered information about the first bird flu outbreaks early last year and the pervasive corruption.

With their obsessive control over everything journalists see, I did wonder just how much success they were having.

Duck pudding

One morning at 0630 they took us to see one of the checkpoints on the roads into Hanoi.

Duck farmer in Vietnam
Vietnam simply cannot afford to compensate all its farmers for the numbers of birds it would have to kill
Officials from the Department of Agriculture were struggling into protective waterproofs and rubber boots.

There are checkpoints for all livestock coming into the capital, they told us, although this one would surely have missed the early birds on their way to market.

Still, a motorbike was pulled over, wire baskets crammed with live chickens piled high on the back, which were then doused with disinfectant.

Residents of Hanoi told me these checkpoints only appear haphazardly.

The tactic is of limited use in any case, as some birds continue to spread the virus even without becoming sick.

Especially ducks.

Which is a particular problem in Vietnam, where people are very partial to them.

Ducks live around the house and are taken out to dabble in the paddy-fields, potentially shedding huge quantities of the H5N1 virus there.

And when the time comes to eat one, the traditional Vietnamese method is to slit the duck's throat in the family kitchen and make a pudding with its uncooked blood.

Vaccine debate

We were then allowed to watch a team of vaccinators operating in the village of Phu Ah, goggled and masked and equipped with what, for a duck, looked frighteningly big chrome syringes.

Most countries believe good surveillance and ruthless culling are the best methods for containing the virus
They are certainly fast, plucking several ducks at a time by the neck and plunging the needle into each breast.

Duck farmer Trinh Van On was not complaining.

With one eye nervously on the officials surrounding him, he expressed his gratitude to the government.

Few other countries are prepared to follow this strategy of relying on relatively untested new vaccines.

Most believe good surveillance, combined with ruthless culling, are the best methods for containing the virus.

There is some sympathy for Vietnam, though, at the offices of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Hanoi.

"The vaccines may not wipe out the virus," they told me, "but at least they may bring it down to more manageable levels."

And besides, Vietnam simply cannot afford to compensate all its farmers for the numbers of birds it would have to kill.

But as I watched the officials accompanying us, downing bottle after bottle of beer at the lunch we were obliged to provide them, I wondered whether Vietnam's communist apparatchiks were really ready to fight this enemy as wholeheartedly as they had fought in their previous wars.

Map showing locations and numbers of human deaths from bird-flu strain H5N1

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 November, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Vietnam
01 Oct 05 |  Country profiles


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