HONG KONG—While China’s official media broadcast round-the-clock footage of white-clad health officials handling dead and burning chickens, farmers on the ground in the hard-hit northwest of the country have cast doubts on the ability of official teams to contain the outbreak.
One farmer from Heishan county, where six million chickens were slaughtered within a three-km radius of last week’s outbreak, said many residents had sold off chickens—including those that appeared sick—to other farmers in the region before the official slaughter began.
“There are quite a few people who have sold off all their chickens to people from nearby,” the farmer, from Gangcai village, told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“They’re afraid that the government will come and slaughter them all...Some even sell off birds when they’ve already spotted a problem. Probably 80,000 to 100,000 birds have been sold off.”
There are quite a few people who have sold off all their chickens to people from nearby,
“Yesterday, they were being sold off to all sorts of places. This has been going on for more than 10 days now,” he added.
Meanwhile, a resident of Daban township 52 kms from Heishan said she believed the outbreak in her area had been transmitted by the vehicles of quarantine teams passing through her neighborhood on their way to control the Heishan outbreak.
“I think it’s being spread by the work teams, by their vehicles, and the people traveling to and fro,” the woman said. “Nowadays transportation is so developed, it can spread easily in all four directions. Any vehicles traveling [there] have to go past here, and it was there that the infection started.”
Official comment on management of the outbreak has been mixed, with China’s Agriculture Minister Du Qingling acknowledging that the situation in Liaoning “is still serious.”
Two weeks after poultry started dying of bird flu, “efforts to wipe out the disease have been very difficult and the prevention work is arduous,” Du told the China News Service.
Du blamed producers of low-quality vaccines being sold in Liaoning, saying they could ruin government efforts to eradicate the H5N1 bird flu virus. “The use of fake and shoddy vaccines will result in a disaster,” he said.
“If the vaccines are not up to standard, then immunization to the virus will not be uniform or effective. This could bring huge losses,” he said.
The Gangcai poultry farmer said the mass selloffs of poultry to escape the slaughter program had in part resulted from the fact that vaccines that had worked in previous years were no longer effective.
“It was all right in previous years because when we saw that some birds had become infected, we would just give them some medicine. Now it doesn’t work any more...You can’t totally stifle ordinary people who make their living out of selling chickens. If they can find a buyer, then they have to sell, don’t they?”
It was all right in previous years because when we saw that some birds had become infected, we would just give them some medicine. Now it doesn’t work any more...You can’t totally stifle ordinary people who make their living out of selling chickens. If they can find a buyer, then they have to sell, don’t they?
Local officials contacted by RFA’s Mandarin service either hung up immediately or gave short, limited answers. “No, there haven’t,” a Heishan county official said when asked if any human infection had been reported, declining to comment further.
Meanwhile, experts say that inadequate compensation for slaughtered chickens could lead to non-compliance with government attempts to control the spread of the disease.
A poultry farmer surnamed Li from the Daban area said she was angry with the government for refusing to compensate her for several hundred birds that had died before the mass slaughter began.
“They told me they were only compensating for chickens killed after a certain date. Because the ones that died earlier weren’t reported, they refused to compensate me,” Li said. “But where was I supposed to go to report them, when they were already disposed of?”
Hong Kong-based avian flu expert Guan Yi agreed that the government’s compensation plans were inadequate and criticized agricultural and health bureaucracies nationwide for their response to the bird flu crisis.
“We don’t really know how far vehicle wheels can carry the viruses because no one is conducting tests there. The spread of an epidemic depends on the widening of the outbreak, and migrant birds are making things worse,” said Guan, a virologist and avian flu expert currently working as a microbiology associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“The government’s compensation scheme can’t keep up with events on the ground. In Heishan county they have slaughtered more than six million chickens, but have allocated only 9.6 million yuan in compensation. That seems very unfair. Is a chicken only worth 1.60 yuan (20 U.S. cents)?”
The spread of an epidemic depends on the widening of the outbreak, and migrant birds are making things worse,
“This means that the farmers are going to be very unwilling to allow you to slaughter their chickens. It means that you are killing off their livelihood.”
Guan said he blamed structural problems in Chinese health bureaucracy. “Every day we get the news which shows people slaughtering, burning and burying dead chickens, as if it were a TV show,” he said.
“So what are they doing with themselves most of the time? This virus didn’t come from a clear blue sky...Yesterday they reported that they were vaccinating in 23 provinces and cities. Why do they wait until an outbreak has already occurred before vaccinating? Why wasn’t it all 31 cities and provinces, instead of just 23?”
Later, he spoke to RFA’s Cantonese service about a severe communications breakdown within the Chinese government. “The ministry of agriculture won’t even share information with the ministry of health. So how can the ministry of health share information with the rest of the world?”
Guan called on the Chinese government to make full use of virological research and testing facilities at Hong Kong University, one of the leading labs for the study of H5N1.
That is the deadly avian flu strain that World Health Organization (WHO) officials fear may have caused the death of a 12-year-old girl in a separate outbreak in China’s central Hunan province.
WHO has said it will send medical experts to Hunan to investigate three cases of pneumonia. “The diagnosis is of pneumonia caused by unknown factors,” a health worker at the hospital said.
Bird flu has killed more than 60 people in Asia and infected at least 123 since late 2003. In almost every case, the virus appears to have been transmitted to humans through contact with birds. Indonesia on Saturday confirmed its fifth bird flu death.
WHO fears a global pandemic that could kill millions if the H5N1 virus mutates to a form easily transmissible between humans.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Ming and by RFA’s Cantonese service. 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.