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Bird flu – fresh outbreaks in Asia

Updated On: Jan 12, 2007

Indonesia is not having a good start in 2007 with the airplane crash and now the 76th confirmation of the bird flu virus hit, the second case in the new year.

One of the questions being asked is why it took so long for this 76th confirmed case to get treatment. She sought treatment at various clinics but was only hospitalized on 6 January 2007 and moved to the Persahabatan hospital here on 8 Jan 2007.   "The woman, 37 years, come from Serpong and had become ill after cooking and eating a chicken she had bought live at a local market on December 30," government health official I Nyoman Kandun told the international media on 9 Jan 2007.

In many cases, even health officials in West Java, doctors and nurses, have failed to take precautions seriously and do not treat patients showing bird flu symptoms with urgency. The public health officials often arrive late at infection sites after the disease is reported. One of the reasons for this situation is because since the collapse of the Suharto regime, decentralization in Indonesia has given the provincial authorities far more power than the central authorities, often resulting in the periphery ignoring the edicts of the centre.

Other than the ignorance of people to the deadly virus, the other concerns about these bird flu infection cases is how the authorities and the people continue to allow chickens to roam around freely in their backyards (30 million households to be exact) and in public spaces. Despite compensation packages, farmers continue to refuse to hand over chickens to the authorities. In North Sumatra, there are bizarre cases of farmers drinking the animals' blood as a social protest against bird flu measures. That explains why global experts and international health agencies continue to see Indonesia as the weak link in the global fight against the virus. 

That’s not all. Five other patients showing bird flu symptoms are being monitored. Given such a scenario, the debate rages on whether Indonesia’s choice of vaccination as opposed to the others’ (VietnamSouth Korea) preferred and WHO-recommended option of mass slaughter is working. This is especially suspicious since the overwhelming majority of infection still comes from domesticated chickens. Nevertheless, the Indonesian government has gone ahead with the declaration of their zero tolerance strategy  - aiming at zero cases of bird flu deaths this year. This is a tall order given the number of victims already hit.

All these signs continue to indicate that public awareness programs funded by international donors are not working. I Nyoman Kandun himself realizes this. He says: "The health ministry helps campaign for clean fowl cages. Actually we do not want to have farms near housing areas but that is still difficult.” The WHO's Dr Georg Petersen highlighted the limitations and challenges of public-awareness campaigns in the Indonesian archipelago  with its diverse sub-cultures. "The government is sponsoring ongoing campaigns to build people's awareness about the threat of bird flu…There are more people who know about bird flu and how to protect themselves from it today than before, however, it still isn't enough. More has to be done. And it is not just a job for the government, but for all of us," he said.

Besides IndonesiaChina also announced its first human case since July last year. Meanwhile, bird flu also seems to be spreading its wings in Vietnam, though fortunately, no human case has surfaced yet.

Sources:

China reports first human bird flu case in six months (Channelnewsasia, 10 January 2007)

Indonesia confirms 76th human bird flu case (Channelnewsasia, 9 January 2007)

Officials say dip in bird flu cases does not signal victory (Jakarta Post, 10 January 2007)

Indon woman tests positive for bird flu (Reuters/ST, 9 January 2007)

Poor service, public ignorance allow bird flu virus to spread (Jakarta Post, 8 January 2007)

High risk of bird flu spread across Vietnam (AP/ST, 10 January 2007)