Cracking the mystery of how the disease spread
Singburi, Thailand – When an FAO study, conducted in collaboration with the Thai government and released in 2005, suggested that ducks roaming newly harvested rice fields could be responsible for spreading the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, Thailand took the news seriously and decided to make drastic changes in traditional duck farming.
Free-range duck farming has flourished alongside rice production in Thailand for centuries, to the mutual advantage of rice farmers and duck farmers. When a rice farmer finishes his harvest, he invites any neighbours who keep ducks to bring them over to "clean up" his field, feasting on newly exposed snails and insects. But ducks can carry the H5N1 virus and not show clinical signs. Farmers unwittingly spread the virus as they drove their ducks from field to field, the study found.
Therefore, Thai authorities opted to promote a move away from free-range to closed duck farms, in which the ducks are penned up. The decision could have been costly for poorer farmers, especially in areas where outbreaks of bird flu had occurred. However, capitalizing on the traditional Thai respect for authority and offering a generous compensation scheme, Thailand was able to encourage farmers to adopt the changes willingly.
Kanchama Pratum is typical of the first few free-range duck farmers to make the change.
“I never lost a single duck to bird flu, but my 1 500 ducks were killed in a cull because the disease broke out elsewhere in our province,” says Ms Pratum.
“Thanks to government compensation, I started over using the new closed duck farm system. I built new wooden duck pens and posts for the netting to cover the open areas myself with money from a soft loan provided by the government. I got plenty of technical advice from the Department of Livestock Development.”
"I’m happy with the new system, because there are some real advantages over free grazing. Though I have to pay for feed now, I find that fewer of my ducks die. On average I get a better price for my eggs than before.”
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