Bird flu makes a comeback

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 25 Jul 2004

By Foo Yee Ping

POULTRY farmer Phittaya Chuanchom was a broken man when bird flu hit Thailand big time late last year. He saw his investments vanishing before his eyes when his chickens dropped dead one by one, killing also his dreams of getting married. 

“My girlfriend talks less to me now,” the 26-year-old man was quoted as saying in The Nation on Jan 25. 

The days of profiting from his daily sale of 1,200 eggs were gone. “The chickens seemed normal after laying eggs in the morning but then they started trembling and died about five minutes later,” said Phittaya. 

Such grim stories are now archived but bird flu or avian influenza has since made a comeback in Thailand.  

Early this month, the first reported case came from a farm in Ayutthaya, about 76km north of Bangkok. 

Several farms in Bangkok have not been spared, either.  

So far, bird flu has spread to 15 provinces in Thailand – which means bad news for a country that is the world’s fourth largest poultry exporter. 

The number of birds that died or were culled was estimated at 160,000, including prized fighting cocks that lost their battle with the virus. 

Perhaps the only consolation is that the outbreak will not be as severe this time, according to top officials. To control its spread, the government has ordered the culling of fowls within a 5km radius near affected farms.  

Likewise, the birds will have to go if more than 10% of them in any farm are ill or have died mysteriously. 

During a visit to Ayutthaya last weekend, I found that life went on as usual for the town folk. 

“Bird flu? There’s nothing to worry about as long as the chicken is properly cooked before consumption,” said Karl, a hotel receptionist, displaying a plastic bag containing chicken eggs he bought for his family. 

Almost half of the 25 rooms in the budget hotel where he worked had been taken up. 

This, perhaps, was an indication that tourists were not staying away from the ancient city that was once the Thai capital for 417 years. Its attraction lies in its splendid temple ruins that are on Unesco’s world heritage list. 

One couple from Iceland said they only heard of news about the bird flu upon arriving in Thailand. Still, they were not worried. 

As for Bangkok residents, a number of them seem oblivious to hygiene standards despite the dangers of bird flu. 

At the popular Chatuchak market last Sunday, people were tucking away at a food stall that stood next to a pet shop. 

Thai authorities have blamed the return of bird flu to humidity and migratory birds. Barely two months ago, the government had pronounced the country free from the disease. 

During the first round of the outbreak, some 40 million birds were culled.  

And the H5N1 virus detected in Thailand is reportedly the most deadly strain because it could jump from birds to humans with fatal results sometimes. Earlier this year, it killed eight people in Thailand. 

The talk now centres on vaccination, but the authorities have not given the green light. 

The government wants further tests before allowing a vaccine to be used on chickens because the health risks to humans have not been determined. 

Furthermore, the vaccine may just lead to mutation of the virus and vaccinated birds may have the disease without showing symptoms. 

At the height of the previous epidemic, one restaurant resorted to offering ostrich meat instead of chicken. 

It has not come to that stage. But the government may again be fighting a losing battle against a virus once described by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as a form of modern terrorism. 

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