Army of volunteers helps detect flu early
Thailand's struggle to contain bird flu
Bangkok, Thailand - With a disease that spreads like fire, it is critical to stamp out the first flames.
Thailand learned that lesson the hard way after the 2004 bird flu epidemic devastated its industrial and small-scale poultry sectors -- with an estimated loss to GDP of US$1.2 billion -- and left a dozen people dead.
"Early detection is very important and we try very hard to find outbreaks early," says Dr Chaweewan Leowijuk, Deputy Director General of the Department of Livestock Development. "We have improved our procedures and now have 1.2 million volunteers -- one per 10 families -- in place, local people who get a little training in how to recognize symptoms."
As soon as the first new bird flu cases were reported in July 2004, the volunteer army was remobilized to look for signs of the disease in chicken coops and markets around the country.
Once an outbreak is reported by fax or e-mail to a bird flu "war room" in Bangkok and then confirmed, the order goes out to activate checkpoints on roads and airports in the infected area. Infected poultry must be prevented from spreading the disease to adjacent and even distant flocks. Police and army personnel reinforce livestock technicians at inspection points.
For maximum flexibility and rapid reaction, each of the 76 provincial governors also has the authority to order movement control and culling, in coordination with the central government.
The governor of Supanburi Province, where the virus was first detected in Thailand, has become somewhat of an expert in the behaviour of the disease, ready to play his part in directing local control operations.
"During the first episode of avian flu we were quite inexperienced and didn't know how to handle the disease," recalls Governor Songpon Timasat in his spacious office overlooking the four-lane highway from Bangkok. "But for the second episode, we are quite experienced with it and, with technical guidance from public health and livestock experts, put our combined efforts into the target areas."
"I see a good change in people lately," he adds. "They are more willing to participate in public health and disease prevention measures."
Fighting cocks: have passport, will travel
Managing movement of poultry is imperative for control of bird flu. In Thailand, authorities have gone as far as introducing passports for one category of poultry: fighting cocks.
A bit larger than a national passport, the 24-page cardboard-covered fighting cock passport needs three photos: comb to toe, head, and legs, which all show identifying markings as unique as fingerprints. Cocks are tested for bird flu every two months and the results entered in the passport.
"Cockfighting is so popular here that the best cocks travel all over the country, even by plane, to fights," explains Yuthana Chaisakdanugull, Director of Animal Movement Control and Quarantine Division, Department of Livestock Development. "When one province that banned cockfights didn't have a second wave outbreak of bird flu and an adjacent province did, it reinforced the belief that the cocks spread disease.
"So we came up with the idea of the passport."
Although Thailand now has put a nationwide ban on cockfighting due to the epidemic, cock owners must still use the passports to move their prized birds around the country.
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