TOUCH wood. Malaysia has been lucky so far. We have been spared from the dreadful bird flu outbreak that has hit our neighbour Thailand and other countries in the region.
It’s difficult for someone like me who loves his hainan chicken rice to stay away from poultry meat, and my two half-boiled eggs with just the right dose of Chinese kicap for breakfast (accompanied by coffee and newspaper).
In short, like many Malaysians, we will cry foul if we have to stay away completely from the fowl.
But the disease is no laughing matter. We have banned the import of chicken from Thailand and we must ensure that our soldiers do not let their guard down in preventing any attempt to smuggle chickens across the border.
The Thai government has come under fire from the public for an alleged cover-up but the authorities have maintained that it was actually a “screw-up” and there was no attempt to conceal the disease.
Thai government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair blamed government agencies for “misinterpretation of procedures” and “inadequate information relayed”, saying there was a distinction between a cover-up and inefficiency.
But the damage has been done with two lives lost. The Thai government did a lousy job by taking things lightly.
Accountability, transparency and the availability of information must always be upheld in dealing with matters involving the public, particularly their health. Thailand, it seems, has not learnt from the SARS outbreak.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra revealed that the famous Chatuchak weekend market tested positive for the virus and poultry culling would continue.
With thousands of stalls selling products from local handicraft to pets, the market is regarded as a compulsory stop for tourists. By naming the market as one of the two places in Bangkok hit by the bird flu, tourism will certainly be affected.
The irony is that earlier this year, Thailand declared 2004 as the Year of Food Safety. For the sake of its credibility, Thailand must now seriously handle the whole issue.
Singapore, which imports 120,000 live chickens from Malaysia daily, has strengthened its checks on our 50 to 60 trucks at the Tuas checkpoint. The precautions include checking for infection – chickens with purple necks, combs and legs or swollen heads and legs.
Documents detailing each chicken’s journey from farm to market are verified as a form of contact tracing. If a bird is found with the virus, the entire consignment can be traced and culled immediately.
Learning from the SARS experience, Singapore has gone one step further – it has designated Tan Tock Seng Hospital as the place for all patients suspected of having contracted bird flu.
The Singapore government has emphasised that unlike SARS, the bird virus is not transmitted between humans. Still, bird flu victims will be treated the same way as SARS patients. It means they will be isolated.
Experts around the world have been fighting against time to find out how the disease has spread and one possibility is migratory birds. World Health Organisation officials said such birds played a key role in passing the virus by producing infected droppings that dry up, turn to dust and are inhaled by other birds.
Other possible factors include the smuggling of infected livestock, contaminated feed, clothing and equipment, as well as over-crowded chicken coops. A common factor among the 10 countries hit by the virus was the natural route taken by millions of migratory birds that could have passed the virus to domesticated birds.
Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng has advised the people to take precautionary measures if Malaysia is to remain free of the virus. He stressed the authorities were monitoring all cases of influenza-like illness but there had been no abnormal increase in such cases.
He said all poultry-based food, including eggs, should be thoroughly cooked because heat would kill the virus. In other words, roasted chicken is fine but avoid half-boiled eggs for the time being.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Datuk Seri Shariff Omar has directed chicken farmers to check the presence of migratory birds, including egrets and terns, which might be attracted by the food in poultry farms.
Our authorities can take other stringent measures, such as reducing the number of crows in places like Klang, Johor Baru and George Town, which have many eatery outlets. More checks should be conducted on restaurants that keep livestock such as birds.
Besides being illegal zoos, they pose a health hazard to customers. The authorities should not wait for handwritten reports before taking action against these restaurant operators.
We also need to keep a close watch on migratory birds found in padi fields and other areas to make sure they do not carry the virus.
But our health and civil defence agencies should consider holding a field exercise to simulate an actual disease outbreak to test our preparedness in such situations.
By taking these steps, we would not just be fine-tuning ourselves to face any disease outbreak but prove that we have a credible, responsible, transparent and competent government.
o Wong Chun Wai can be reached at onthebeat@ thestar.com.my
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