Bird flu: Quick reporting and mass awareness needed
22 March 2009, Chittagong. It was midnight but there was no sleep in Lokman’s eyes. In the hillside village of Raghunandan Chowdhury Hat under Raujan sub district of Chittagong district in the south east of Bangladesh, night falls a little earlier than other places.
All the 1,165 chickens of his farm have been culled due to avian influenza (bird flu). 22 had died beforehand.
“My birds started to be sick four days ago’, explained Lockman. “Their feed intake markedly dropped. Many were showing signs of sickness with runny nose, high body temperature and too much thirst. Some started dying. The birds were 26 days old so they should have been gaining 60-70 grams per day. My ones weren’t”.
“When I saw this, I took two dead birds to the veterinary doctor. He tested some viscera of the dead chicken and said it was the common cold. He prescribed a three-day course of drugs for the birds. But two days after, another four birds died. I went to him again but he assured me that there was nothing to worry about.”
After a couple of days, another 18 chickens died. This time, Lockman took dead birds to the livestock officer who sent them to the district field diseases investigation laboratory. Later that afternoon, the laboratory informed the livestock officer that the samples were H5 positive- an indication that they could have been contaminated by Avian influenza.
The district livestock office instructed to cull all the birds on Lokman’s farm. The upazila livestock officer and the Upzila Nirbahi Officer (upazilla executive officer) went with five constables and four cullers to Lokman’s village late that evening.
They cordoned the infected farm and informed Lokman that they had been instructed by higher authorities to cull his birds. At first, Lokman resisted but the team persuaded him to let them in.
By 4am of 28 January, all 1,165 chickens of the farm were dead and buried in a dugout beside the farm.
Lack of awareness leads to unsafe practices
Maleka Begum (55) of Kanchanpur village of Char Fasson of Bhola district did not know what caused the death of all ten of her home grown chickens.
“For three days the birds were drowsy. The first one to die was a hen that had just laid its third egg the previous night. It was a deformed egg with a soft uneven shell,” she told.
Seeing the bird was dying, she slaughtered it and cooked it. “The meat tasted like bitter gourd,” Maleka Begum said.
The rest of the birds died in the following four days.
“We threw the carcasses in the nearby bushes so the wild skunks or mongooses can eat them. Sometimes we dump them in the ditch behind our house or in the canal nearby,” she said.
In fact, the last chicken that had died two days before was still floating in the water-filled ditch behind her house.
Among the key measures to prevent the spread of bird flu is the safe disposal of the carcasses of dead chicken –either by burying them deep in the soil or by burning. Similarly touching and eating sick chickens is dangerous as the virus can infect human beings.
Maleka Begum said that she had never heard about bird flu. She also did not know what to do when birds fall sick and die. Two of her grown up sons expressed ignorance about the need for reporting unusual death of birds.
Same was the case with the three backyard farmers of village Parashuramer Kuthi of Bhurungamari Upazilla of Kurigram district in the far north of the country where an Avian influenza outbreak was reported at the end of January.
Neither the affected farmers, nor the villagers knew about the urgency of reporting bird death.
To address this situation, UNICEF is supporting Bangladesh Government to implement effective risk communication activities. This is crucial as a total of 47 districts out of 64 have reported avian influenza outbreaks since March 2007 when the virus was detected for the first time in Bangladesh. From December 2008 till mid-March 2009, a total of nineteen outbreaks have been reported among poultry – the majority occurring in small –scale farms.
An elaborate national communication strategy has been developed with UNICEF assistance. Communication remains critical in controlling the Avian epidemic and preventing animal to human transmission. In 2008, UNICEF contributed to conduct a mass awareness campaign through the media and also conducted community-level communication interventions. Hundreds of thousands of posters and leaflets have been distributed throughout the country to disseminate basic prevention messages on bird flu. Today UNICEF continues to support folk theatre groups and the Department of Communication to organize sensitization sessions in communities. During the past months, refresher training for 702 journalists has been carried out by the Press institute of Bangladesh in different districts with UNICEF financial assistance.
In addition, training on avian influenza prevention messages is being provided to 9,200 Community Hygiene Promoters working under UNICEF Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water Supply in Bangladesh (SHEWA-B). They will disseminate these important messages during their regular activities for hygiene education and will encourage all poultry farmers to report sick birds as early as possible.