Farmers in Dark Over Bird Flu

Chinese officials report an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus among poultry flocks in eastern Jiangsu province.

poultry-305 HEFEI, China: Poultry seller at a market in Hefei, Anhui province, on Feb. 26, 2008.
Photo: RFA

HONG KONGPoultry farmers in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, site of a recent outbreak of avian influenza, say they know little about what is happening and have seen little help from the government.

China's official Xinhua news agency said officials had culled 377,000 birds on farms around Dongtai city and neighboring Hai'an county after an outbreak was confirmed to have been caused by the deadly H5N1 virus.

But poultry farmers were unaware of the potential health risks of the outbreak, and local official news outlets said they hadn't reported the story.

The government has dispatched people to every intersection in this area..."

Police official

"We lost about 40,000 or 50,000," a poultry farmer near Dongtai city said. "Now, even the chicks are getting infected. We are having to deal with this ourselves. We are burying them in pits."

Dongtai is home to an estimated 10 million farmed poultry.

"They haven't managed to come up with a vaccine yet, and we have had no help from officials. If, as you say, this disease could be a danger to human life, then we didn't know about it. The government should send people down here to take care of it," she added.

Lack of information

Another farmer in the area, surnamed Li, said he didn't know about the outbreak, or what caused it, despite announcements by the Agriculture Ministry in Beijing.

"Chickens die as a normal part of running a poultry business," he said.

"I'm not sure when this took place. There are so many poultry farmers in this region. I haven't heard anything locally about whether this was in fact bird flu. It is only one of the diseases that can affect poultry, after all," Li added.

The first farmer partially confirmed a report by the Hong Kong-based Information Center on Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, which said some sick chickens had been taken to Shanghai, Shandong, or Guangdong and sold in the wake of the oubreak.

"All of the farms did this. A few would die every day, and then we would just sell them anyway."

She said the poultry merchants then realized there was a problem and started to drop the prices they would give for the chickens.

Local media silence

She said she had heard no announcement from the Agriculture Ministry and had no idea where the chicken carcasses ended up.

She had no idea that the central government was offering compensation of 10 yuan per chicken to farmers who slaughtered sick birds.

In the absence of any new vaccine, she said, she would be forced out of business.

Local news outlets said they hadn't reported the story.

"We haven't heard anything about this," a duty editor in the newsroom of the Dongtai Daily News said.

"Our reporters haven't said anything about it ... I don't know [if there is a reporting ban on this]. That's all I can tell you. I can't say if this is true or if it isn't. How many chickens actually died? What was the disease?"

An employee on duty at the Dongtai television station said they hadn't reported the story either, although he had heard the news.

"No, no. This is provincial-level news. I saw the report, but I don't know the actual details. No, [we didn't report it]."

Roadside checks

But local police said strict controls were being imposed on the movement of any poultry in the area.

An employee who answered the phone at the Sancang township police station, where a large number of poultry farms are concentrated, said the area had been placed under quarantine to ensure that no sick poultry was taken elsewhere.

"The government has dispatched people to every intersection in this area, and they are carrying out roadside checks to prevent infected chickens from being moved around. The checks are continuing [Wednesday]. They have been going on for some time now, although I don't know the details."

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has killed more than 200 people and ravaged poultry flocks worldwide since 2003, was found on a chicken farm in Dongtai city and in another farm in Hai'an county, China's Agriculture Ministry said in a statement on its Web site Tuesday.

The virus hasn't been reported in any other locations, and UN Food and Agriculture adviser Vincent Martin sought to play down fears of an outbreak of bird flu in China, which has already seen three confirmed human deaths from bird flu this year.

Martin said the FAO had been notified by Chinese authorities on Tuesday about the outbreak, which could have been triggered by migratory birds.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lillian Cheung and in Mandarin by Fang Yuan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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