East of the Bangladesh border with West Bengal, 26 kilometres from Dinajpur, villagers in Khodshippur and Ratnur are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Starting on 26 January, the Dhaka government frantically called for the massive slaughtering of backyard stocks of chickens and ducks, in this area and elsewhere. Since then, in the middle of the night, national culling committees, with help of local labour, have searched affected villages for chickens and ducks – collecting the birds, twisting their heads, and burying them underground beneath a layer of lime. In less than a month, 700,000 chickens have been killed in this way.
The current avian-influenza outbreak has wreaked havoc on one of Bangladesh’s most important sectors, the poultry industry, upon which roughly 60 percent of the country’s population depends, in one form or another. On 22 January, the news broke that multiple outbreaks were taking place in both Bangladesh and India; over the course of the following two weeks, more than 450,000 chickens were killed in 38 out of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, particularly in northwestern border areas abutting West Bengal. By the first week of February, the virus had reached urban areas in Dhaka and Chittagong, where hundreds of dead, infected crows were suddenly being found on the streets (see pic). Given the high human population densities in these areas, the longstanding fears of a looming pandemic mounted.
Although it remains a matter of significant debate as to where exactly the outbreak began, following 22 January border entry points were immediately sealed by both the Bangladeshi and Indian governments. Significant recrimination also began emanating from India, placing the blame squarely on Bangladesh. For its part, the Dhaka government has been relatively quiet as to where it believes the outbreak began. One way or another, many suggest that Bangladesh’s government can now do little more than react. “It is already too late for the government to take any measure for bird-flu prevention,” says M M Khan, a technical adviser to the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Association. “Bangladesh has already been identified as one of the three worst bird-flu endemic regions,” he notes, after Indonesia and Egypt.
Meanwhile, across the border in West Bengal, where health officials were dealing with India’s largest-yet outbreak of bird flu, almost 2.4 million birds were culled during the last week of January and the first week of February. The official target was later raised to 2.8 million, at which point Indian officials claimed ‘victory’ over the virus. No such claims have yet been made in Bangladesh.
The national culling committee reached Narabari four days after the outbreak was declared. Comprised of officials from the livestock department, accounts officers, local government officers and security personnel, the committee visited Khodshippur and Ratnur late at night. In the aftermath, their intervention has been far from welcomed, largely due to perceptions of shoddy handling of the situation, both before and during the cull.
According to Abdul Quddus Mia, a veterinary surgeon with the Upazila Livestock Hospital, roughly 1300 chickens and ducks were destroyed by the culling committee in this area. On 31 January alone, Dinajpur saw the largest cull ever to take place in the zone, when the government ordered the slaughtering of nearly 28,000 birds, as well as more than 60,000 eggs. All of this took place following months of one of the worst food crunches ever experienced in Bangladesh, as summer floods and November’s Cyclone Sidr dramatically undercut the country’s stores of foodgrains. “It is absolutely inhuman to see the birds that we have grown with our time, effort and money being killed off in this way,” says Muntasir Hossain Chowdhury, who lost 7000 chickens during the course of the 31 January cull. “The chickens are not even being properly killed,” he complains. “They are just running around the grounds with their heads bleeding.”
Now, peasants here are complaining that the local economy has been demolished, and that compensation, if it ever arrives, looks far off. “Although the officials took our names, they have not given us any document to make our compensation claims later,” says Nipen, a householder from Khodshippur. Nipen says that he had just two chickens in the first place, and that both of these were killed. “Most of my neighbours owned a few ducks or chickens, just like me,” he continues, his voice growing rough with emotion. “The most that anyone had here was 31, while the rest of us kept just a couple or so.”
Though Dhaka officials have promised compensation for those affected by the cull, many are dubious about the prospects, given the inability of most farmers to provide official documentation regarding their losses. In West Bengal, notes M M Khan, the government has agreed to write off loans and compensate farmers for their losses. “It even further agreed to subsidise them for farming chickens in the future,” he says. On the contrary, the Bangladesh government has outright blamed the country’s hatcheries for the current outbreak, indirectly asking them to provide chicken feed, vaccines and medicine to the affected farmers.
But even if Dhaka’s compensation does make it into the hands of those who have a right to it, Rezaur Rahman Chowdhury, president of the Dinajpur Poultry Owners Association, warns that it is far too little, not to mention too late. In late January, Dhaka set compensation at BDT 70 per chicken for commercial farms, and BDT 80 per bird for household poultries. Chowdhury says that both of these are only around a third of the actual investment. “At least 300 taka is spent per year for raising a single chicken,” he says, “and the government’s compensation is far too low to overcome this loss.”
During the four decades between 1959 and 1998, an estimated 23 million birds thought to be infected with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) viruses were culled worldwide. The extremely contagious strain of avian influenza called H5N1, which is behind the recent health scares, first came to the world’s attention in 1997. Indeed, between 1999 and 2004, as many as 200 million birds were culled due to worries over H5N1. After 2004, however, culling suddenly fell out of international favour, and was no longer considered acceptable on either economic or ethical terms in developing countries. Instead, vaccination was recommended as an important control tool by the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, backed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. (For developed countries, farm-by-farm culling is still a preferred method, however, because poultry farms are though to be maintained in more-controlled environments, and at a distance from one another. An outbreak therefore, does not suggest a mass cull.
Vaccination has met with significant lethargy in some countries, however, including Bangladesh. This has resulted due to a lack of both funding and knowledge, but also over suspicions, real or imagined, about the real-life efficacy of the vaccine itself. “Vaccination is not a foolproof solution to the avian influenza, and thus it has not been successful everywhere,” says Sunil Chandra Ghosh, the director-general of the Department of Livestock Services, in Dhaka. “Considering the strain of the virus, the vaccination may not be effective. Besides, if vaccination is started, it has to be continued.”
Although the Netherlands has developed a vaccine for avian influenza, even the Dutch have yet to begin to use it on their stocks. This has less to do with anxiety over the vaccine itself, however, than over the perception of the need to use the vaccination in the first place. But Ghosh himself understands what such skittishness over vaccines – including his own – means for the ability of widespread vaccination to become rooted. He recalls that during a meeting with a group of Dutch health officials, he was told that many in the Netherlands worry that other countries might be moved to call a halt to the import of Dutch poultry, should they find out that the birds had been vaccinated due to an outbreak of avian influenza.
In the long-term, however, vaccination seems to be the only way to deal with the disease. The H5N1 virus is dramatically lethal for birds. According to Kazi Zahedul Hasan, managing director of Kazi Farms, one of Bangladesh’s largest poultry suppliers, the mortality rate for affected birds in the country was somewhere between 90 and 100 percent within a week. (There is no count of the birds that died naturally from H5N1.) In Bangladesh, currently the only way to determine the pathogen’s whereabouts is by watching for its symptoms. The lone institute to detect the virus among animals, the Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute, is not equipped to determine the pathogen clinically. As such, the most ‘sophisticated’ way that Dhaka officials are able to react to the current outbreak has been, quite simply, to watch for reports of dying birds, and then to order an immediate cull throughout that vicinity.
Such a reaction has garnered criticism from many as out of line. “In India, a large number of fowl are dying,” says the director of the Department of Livestock Services, Salehuddin Khan. “Compared to that, in Bangladesh the outbreak of avian influenza is sporadic. If [news of] the initial outbreaks had not been suppressed and the whole process was kept transparent, the outbreak would not have ultimately gotten so bad.” This is undoubtedly the most damning criticism of Dhaka’s handling of the outbreak in Bangladesh, and it extends far beyond the actions of the past few months. In the current context, even once the outbreaks within Bangladesh began taking place, the government has been accused of suppressing information about what was going on for so long that they became too severe to deal with via any approach but a mass cull.
Just as critical has been Dhaka’s failure in recent years to adequately undertake measures necessary to mitigate the possibility of a bird-flu outbreak. Hasan, the Kazi Farms official, says that the government has been dramatically lax in developing the regular surveillance required to control an outbreak before it gets as large as this year’s. Likewise, Salehuddin Khan warns that it is not possible for his livestock department alone to control the situation, but emphasises that fostering awareness and involvement on the part of the public is of critical importance.
Indeed, there has been something of a head-in-the-sand approach to avian influenza on the part of the Dhaka government. Although massive levels of funding have been acquired by government offices from foreign-aid agencies for just this purpose, industry insiders say that they have seen almost no trace of the BDT 50 million (USD 730,000) that the government is reported to have sanctioned to combat bird flu. Dhaka continues to receive significant funding from multiple international aid agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme for this purpose. The former has agreed to provide USD 16 million, over a five-year period that began in July 2007; a senior information officer with the Bank, S M Rezwan-ul-Alam, confirms that “half a million dollars” has been disbursed from the fund to date. Dhaka has likewise been given another USD 2 million by the Multi Donor Trust Fund, which is comprised of eight countries, including the European Commission.
Beyond the reports of rampant corruption and misuse of funds by high-level authorities, some straightforward monitoring solutions have simply been ignored, or rejected outright. “In particular there is an early-detection kit, to check for bird flu,” says M M Khan. “But the livestock department deliberately barred its import, arguing that farmers would first sell the infected chickens to the [local] market if the disease were to be detected.” One poultry-industry official, who wished to remain anonymous, corroborated this line: “The health and livestock department developed some brilliant projects as per the international guidelines, but did not implement them.” In the end, the government neither allowed for private initiatives (such as the early-detection apparatuses Khan describes) to go forward, nor did it make any effort to lessen the outbreak’s increasing intensity until it was too late.
Investigations have revealed that the livestock department has concealed facts about earlier outbreaks, as well, apparently worried that if hatcheries were identified as contaminated, sales and distribution would fall precipitously. In 2002, two Bangladeshi scientists pinpointed the existence of avian influenza in the country, which was subsequently made public at an industry seminar in 2003. In 2005, H5N2 (a slight variant) was detected among ducks, and, according to sources within the poultry industry, information about the outbreak was likewise suppressed by Dhaka officials. At the time, the Japan International Cooperation Agency even offered to do the requisite surveillance, diagnosis and clean-up of the disease, but the government, then led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, ignored the proposal.
A year ago, in February 2007, an outbreak was again reported on a few farms, including one belonging to the state-owned airline, Biman. At that point, the government did officially announce the existence of the disease in Bangladesh, and a cull was carried out at the affected poultries. The incident seems to have done little to jolt the government’s appreciation of the situation, however, with Dhaka subsequently doing nothing to increase effective surveillance and monitoring. Finally, hints of the current outbreak were discovered in August and September of last year, but received little coverage within Bangladesh. In the meanwhile, poultry industrialists fear the government’s Central Poultry Farm has distributed its infected chickens among Sidr victims in Patuakhali, Barguna, Bhola and other districts. Slowly, the outbreak’s intensity gained momentum, until in mid-January it could no longer be ignored.
As yet, no human cases of avian influenza have been reported in either Bangladesh or India, though hundreds of poultry farmers and slaughterers in both countries have been kept under observation after recently complaining of bird-flu-like symptoms. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 350 human cases of H5N1 have been confirmed around the world, including in Pakistan, Burma, China and Indonesia. Since late 2003, up until late February this year, there have been more than 220 casualties attributed to the virus, though there has not been a single proven case of human-to-human transmission, which would indicate that a mutation has occurred that could lead to a pandemic. (Though scientists differ on this point, with some feeling that there have indeed been a few human-to-human cases.) Monitoring has also been stepped up in Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan, with the virus having been found in a farm in Sindh in early February. With the virus not constrained by national boundaries, each of these countries would now do well to begin collaborating immediately on developing a regional approach to dealing with avian influenza.
~ Saad Hammadi is a reporter with the New Age, Dhaka.