Debt and distress: the human impact
Uncertainty prevails among producers, consumers
An Luc Long, Viet Nam - Phan Thi Ninh and her husband are doing the best they can to better their material situation and educate their four children. But the avian flu emergency threatens them with ruin.
Living in the fertile Mekong Delta, Ms Ninh started her own broiler chicken business to supply nearby Ho Chi Minh City with meat. Her income on 2 200 chickens, together with her husband's salary from a job with the local government, was enough to send her eldest son to police training school in the city. Then bird flu forced her to cull her flock.
"I owe 30 million dong (US$1 875) to the bank," she laments. "I am having a hard time keeping the children in school. I have to send my eldest son one million dong (US$62) a month and it's not easy at all."
Although she has restocked her coops with 600 birds bought with government compensation, her problem now is that prices for poultry and eggs have virtually collapsed in Viet Nam as consumers, afraid of catching the virus, switch to other meats and fish. "I keep raising chickens, but I'm not sure I can sell them," she says.
In a neighbouring province, duck farmer Nguyen Van Tam was supporting his wife and two children with a flock of 330 birds until early 2005, when his ducks started acting strangely.
"They suddenly started laying eggs very early and then overnight 100 of them died. I reported it and the authorities came right away," he says, as animal health workers in rubber boots, protective clothing and masks spray his farm with disinfectant. The surviving ducks had to be destroyed and all carcasses burned and buried in his garden.
"Without income from the ducks I'm going to have to go and find farm labour in someone else's paddy field and grow a bit of rice on my small field," he says. "It is going to be tough to afford textbooks for my eldest daughter, who is 15."
Crisis of confidence
Mr Purwono, 60, lives on a smallholding in Central Java, Indonesia, supporting himself and five family members on the income from some coconut trees, rice paddy and free-range chickens. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he can still easily get around his chicken coop. The problem is that he lost 370 out of 400 birds to avian flu a year ago.
"It was a very severe loss for me," he says. "I received some compensation from the government, but then I borrowed money from relatives, neighbours, the village co-op, even the vet to survive and restart the business."
"I still only have 30 chickens because I am nervous about the situation. I think vaccination only offers 50-percent protection, because there is still some mortality," he says.
Veterinarians visiting Mr Purwono tell him that the new poultry deaths are from causes other than avian flu. But he remains unconvinced.
The tragedy of a child's death
When his backyard chickens refused to eat and looked ill, Nguyen Van Tuyen's first instinct was to kill and cook them.
The small-scale farmer in Giang Trieu, Viet Nam, a village 60 kilometres southwest of Hanoi, had heard about avian flu on TV, but thought it just affected poultry, not humans.
One week after his four-year-old grandson, Long, ate some of the chicken, the little boy came down with a fever. When his temperature hit an alarming 39˚ C, he was taken to a hospital in Hanoi and died 12 days later of respiratory trouble. Long is one of dozens of avian flu victims in Viet Nam, many of them children.
"He had never been ill in his life," says his mother, Le Thi Yen. "I boiled the chicken, as I usually do, and all the others felt fine after the meal."
One of the mysteries of avian flu is how it spreads (see "Virus detective work in Indonesia" in related stories at right). After Long's death, animal health officials could not find the virus in village livestock, so had to assume that the cooked chicken had transmitted the disease. In fact, the WHO says that human consumption of poultry meat and eggs cooked to 70˚ C is safe and that no cases of bird flu infection have been linked to the consumption of properly cooked meat or eggs.
e-mail this article