No News is Bad News

By Aprilian Hermawan

SUPHAN BURI, Thailand – Tears welled up in Boon Choo’s eyes as he watched thousands of his chickens being reduced to ashes. The Thai government had ordered the slaughter of fowl suspected of having Avian Influenza (AI), commonly known as bird flu, and that meant the culling of the feathered occupants of Boon’s poultry farm, the largest in Song Phi district here in Suphan Buri province, just west of Bangkok.

Those chickens were ready to lay eggs, said Boon, his eyes still on his incinerated birds. “I’ve already lost 35,000 chickens since the epidemic struck,” he added. “Now I have only 16,000 chickens left.”

In late 2003 through the early part of 2004, Suphan Buri was one of the provinces in Thailand hardest hit by bird flu, which also struck Indonesia and Vietnam and half a dozen other countries in Asia at around the same time. But the likes of Boon were the last to know about the disease’s rampage through the region as governments remained in denial regarding the illness’s existence despite media reports of scattered fowl deaths. By the time the Thai government decided to speak up, bird flu was already rather widespread and it had begun showing up in people, and communities were looking at enormous economic losses.

In fact, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced to admit the presence of the disease in this country on Jan. 23, 2004 only after Japan, the largest market for Thailand’s chicken, slapped a ban on imports from the country at the height of the apparent outbreak. The European Union, another major export market, had quickly followed Japan’s lead. Thailand is the fourth biggest poultry exporter in the world, selling 540,000 tons of chicken worth $1.2 billion in 2003.

On Jan. 15, the Consumer Force Association had also sent a letter to Parliament, urging the government to stop covering up the epidemic and consider the public’s health and welfare above that of the economy or tourism. The World Health Organization (WHO) weighed in as well, warning governments in general that denial or slow response could lead to problems in handling the spread of the disease.

“Not long after WHO warned governments to act immediately did the Thai government officially announce the outbreak of bird flu,” said Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, WHO communication and advocacy officer.

When Thaksin made his announcement, he also revealed that the virus had crossed over to humans. Three days after, a six-year-old boy infected with the virus died, Thailand’s first human victim of the disease that later on would kill more people and ravage farms in more than half of the country’s 76 provinces. The H5N1 strain of bird flu that was potentially fatal to humans was spreading in Thailand.

“Mysterious disease” in Indonesia
Thailand, however, was not the only country in denial over the growing bird flu epidemic. Thousands of miles away, Indonesian poultry farmers were also grappling with a mysterious disease killing scores of chicken in many provinces. Unofficial data showed that almost 10 million fowl had died because of a “mysterious disease” all over Indonesia from as early as August 2003, according to newspaper accounts published in June 2004.

The Ministry of Agriculture estimated a lower count — 4.7 million chicken deaths in 10 provinces, including East, Central and Western Java, during that period. But officials blamed the mass deaths on velogenic viscerotropic Newcastle Disease, which is harmless to humans, and not avian influenza. Two days after Thailand’s admission, though, the Indonesian government finally confirmed that bird flu had also infected chickens in some poultry farms across the large archipelago.

Sofjan Sudardjat, director-general for the Development of Animal Husbandry, said Avian Influenza type A had broken out in Java in August 2003 and spread across Indonesia. He failed to say, however, why it took the government five months to make the disclosure.

Yet despite the increasing gravity of the situation, Indonesian agriculture official Budi Tri Akoso announced at an international meeting in Bangkok that his country would carry out a selective slaughter of chicken instead of heeding a WHO recommendation to have a mass slaughter of chicken in infected areas. According to WHO, this was the only way to contain the disease. But Akoso said mandatory, widespread killing of fowl was impractical, adding that Indonesia favored vaccinating poultry.

At last count, the outbreak had cost Indonesia’s poultry industry close to $900 million as the disease killed or caused the subsequent culling of some 20 million chicken across 14 of the country’s 32 provinces. Fortunately for Indonesia, though, there have been no reports of the virus’ transmission to humans. This is not the case in Vietnam, which has so far suffered the biggest number of human casualties due to bird flu. From late 2003 to end-February 2004, some 16 Vietnamese were recorded to have died because of the disease.

A too-quick recovery in Vietnam
Vietnamese health experts said the virus first infected poultry farms in the southern provinces of Long An and Tien Giang in late December 2003 before crossing over to humans. From December 2003 to March 2004, they revealed, the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus was infecting farms in Vietnam.

The bird flu epidemic in Vietnam seemed to be more complicated as different subtypes of influenza virus A, including H3 and H1, circulated at the same time, said Hoang Thuy Long, director general of the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Hanoi.

“Our analysis suggests that the tendency of influenza A to change suddenly and markedly poses a threat to public health, and an annual flu outbreak is inevitable, possibly more dangerous,” he noted.

Vietnam’s first human cases of avian flu infections were detected on January 8, 2004. The country’s first human fatality was reported three days later. By mid-January, the government had banned all chicken sales in Ho Chi Minh City, home to some 10 million people. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Hanoi also advised consumers to avoid contact with live poultry, and stay away from areas contaminated with poultry feces.

But while Vietnam proved to be more forthcoming about the disease than Thailand and Indonesia, it also was too quick to declare an end to the epidemic after no new outbreaks were reported in March. Announced Agriculture Minister Le Huy Ngo in a Mar. 30 press conference:
“Bird flu among poultry on a nationwide scale is over. All the activities of breeding, transportation, processing, circulation and consumption of poultry return to normal.”

UN health and agriculture authorities warned that the announcement was premature as the virus could re-emerge, and there was not enough evidence the disease had been eradicated. They proved to be prescient; another outbreak would occur months later.

Governments under fire
In the meantime, governments remained on the dock as they tried to explain why they had been slow to acknowledge the presence of the disease in their respective countries. Wrote a palpably enraged Chanida Chanyapate Bamford, deputy director of the Focus on the Global South, in a report on the avian flu crisis in Thailand: “The government handling of the bird flu is a saga of cover-ups, incompetence, lies and extremely questionable decisions: the long delay before admitting the existence of the bird flu both in animals and in humans, the selective measures taken to stop the spread of the epidemic and most spectacularly, the massive public relations campaigns to convince Thai citizens that eating chicken was nothing less than a patriotic act.”

In Thailand, many poultry farm owners had been confused and stunned over how such a disease had managed to spread like wildfire without the government issuing any warning. Although they got wind of scores of chickens falling ill from neighboring towns, the government had assured them that whatever it was wasn’t serious.

“According to the government, the cause of death was chicken cholera or bronchitis,” recalled Boon. “If so, there was no need to worry because we had been accustomed to these curable diseases.”

Reports now reveal that the disease first hit Nakhon Sawan, a province further north of Suphan Buri, in November 2003. Not long after that, more farms in other provinces reporting more fowl deaths. But the government in Bangkok remained mum, although the Thai media were already beginning to report on the alarming rate of illness-related chicken deaths in the country.

Local livestock officials, meanwhile, started ordering poultry farmers to slaughter chickens in farms where deaths have been reported to avoid further infection. But they were short on details, such as on what was really wrong with the fowl. Then came the agriculture department’s instructions for a rapid mass depopulation of infected birds that were relayed to big and small poultry farms. Without any mention of compensation, however, most farmers did not comply properly with the order. Said Boon, who later received Bt40 (around $1) for every sacrificed chicken: “We didn’t understand why the government ordered us to kill our chickens if it was only a case of chicken cholera. It’s quite strange isn’t it? If this disease can be treated, why must we bury our chickens?”

He added, “Many of the sick or even dead chickens were sent to the market because farmers were afraid they would not get compensation at that time.”

It was only much later that they were told it was the H5N1 bird flu virus that was killing birds, ducks, and chicken across the country. By then, the poultry farmers were all panicking as a common medicine they had previously used to treat their chickens’ ailments no longer worked.

The Thaksin government tried some damage control by launching a campaign urging people to go back to eating chicken. The prime minister himself was shown on many occasions eating chicken. But Thai consumers stayed away and restaurants also refrained from serving chicken dishes. Newspapers quoted Luckana Naviroj, executive director of the Mall Group, as saying that weeks after the outbreak of the bird flu, sales of chicken fell by 50 percent while sales of eggs dropped by 70 percent.

In Indonesia, several supermarket owners recall their disappointment over the government’s seemingly slow response to the bird-flu problem, which only made consumers afraid of buying and eating chicken meat. Sugiyanto Wibawa, executive director of PT Lion Super Indo, said consumers should have been told about the problem early and thoroughly so they could understand the issue more clearly.

Thai media admit culpability
But while the general public in the affected countries concentrated their ire on their respective governments, some members of the media could not help but feel equally responsible for the delayed information.

Though the media were instrumental in breaking the news about bird flu even while the government was deliberately concealing it, journalists here in Thailand admit that the media had failed in their role to properly inform the public about the epidemic.

Media’s slow and indecisive response to the outbreak of the disease also showed their ignorance or lack of knowledge of such subjects as bird flu, says Bangkok Post assistant editor Sanitsuda Ekachai.

There was little effort on the part of journalists to find out more about the issue, she pointed out. “Our tendency is just to report what people are saying and rely too much on the government,” she told a group of journalists. As it turned out, she said,  the government was suppressing the truth.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor of the Nation, said the government’s mishandling of the situation was part of a “collusion” with big industry players to keep the public in the dark about the seriousness of the situation. “The EU was very angry, and that would destroy the credibility of Thailand,” he said.

But he also remarked, “Bird flu was the biggest issue at that time and our paper and the rest of Thai media failed to report and expose the real situation. We had to wait three to four months.”

Government spokesperson Jakrapob Penkair had earlier admitted that the outbreak was concealed for “a few weeks” to avoid alarm. He defended the move, saying that “it was kept from the public, but full-scale operations have been under way” to contain the outbreak.

But he would later backtrack and blame the government’s slow response on bureaucratic incompetence. “What looks like a cover-up was a misinterpretation of procedures,” Jakrapob told a news conference. “The most appropriate word is screw-up. Some agencies screwed up.”

Activists, however, remained convinced that the government had mishandled the problem, which only revealed the state’s propensity for managing information to suit its needs — in this case, to protect the interests of big business. Bamford wrote, “The story of the avian flu outbreak in Thailand reveals how agribusiness managed to influence the political leaders to make sure that the government defended the interests of the export industry before protecting consumers and producers’ rights.”

And now for some good news
There has been some good news since, though. While it had prematurely declared the country free of the bird-flu epidemic, for instance, Vietnam continued to monitor the situation closely and organized a national network for preventing and controlling infection in poultry farms and among humans.

It is also collaborating with Thailand and other countries in Asia in setting up a surveillance network to control the spread of the virus and its variants. The network exchanges information via the Internet with the goal of detecting and identifying newly emerging variants in a timely manner and to contribute to the selection of appropriate vaccine strains.

In the meantime, to help revive the poultry industry, Hanoi allocated 245.3 billion dong ($15.4 million) for distribution to 57 localities. Each farmer was to receive 5,000 dong (32 cents) for each fowl culled and another 2,000 dong (12.5 cents) for each chick raised in the post-epidemic period.

In Thailand, Dr. Suphamit Chunsutiwat, of the Disease Control Department of the Ministry of Public Health, said his office was closely working with the Livestock Department of the Ministry of Agriculture in monitoring bird flu cases across the country. Whenever a case is reported, he said, they send over an epilogue team to investigate. One such case was found recently in Chiang Mai, in the country’s northwest.

Laboratory tests confirmed that up to 300 chickens at the Chiang Mai University research farm that had fallen ill in early May were infected with the deadly H5N1 strain. As a result, more than 1,000 chicken, ostriches, and ducks at the research farm were destroyed. New bird-flu cases were also confirmed in 11 provinces and suspected in six, including Bangkok.

But unlike before, a more transparent Thaksin had stepped up to say bird flu had broken out again because officials had failed to wipe it out earlier in the year. He said the government formed a 24-hour emergency center as a first line of defense for the rapid containment of avian-influenza outbreaks.

A search for solutions
About 40 million birds have been killed in Thailand since the government announced the first outbreak in January. The government has set aside Bt2.5 billion (about $625 million) to tackle the bird flu epidemic, including compensation to farmers in 41 of the country’s 76 provinces.

Bangkok is looking for a permanent solution to the disease. There is, for instance, the option of inoculation, but this has been the subject of heated debate because scientists argue that some vaccinated fowls could carry the disease without showing symptoms — possibly putting humans at risk in the long run. Veterinary scientists in fact prefer culling to vaccination because vaccines, they claim, are not 100 percent effective.

But in Indonesia, where bird flu also reemerged in East Java province in June, the government launched a major vaccination program to eradicate the disease. Health Ministry spokesperson Hari Priono said the new cases prompted the government to distribute more than 300 million doses of vaccine across Indonesia to keep the virus from spreading.

Postscript
The virus killed a total 20 people in Vietnam and 12 in Thailand in 2004. Outbreaks were also reported in Cambodia, China, Japan, Laos, and South Korea. Some 100 million birds around Asia were culled in 2004 to curb the spread of the disease.

New bird flu cases have been reported in Vietnam and Thailand in 2005, but there is now more transparency in the handling of news and information about the disease.

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