Despite efforts by Cambodian authorities to curtail the illegal trade in ducks along the Vietnamese border, potentially infected poultry continues to be smuggled into the country, according to health and agriculture officials.
With duck farmers in Vietnam—hard hit since October by an outbreak of avian influenza—trying to evade vaccination and culling campaigns, and Cambodian farmers willing to buy from them at low prices, birds continue to be brought into the country by the thousands.
In the past few weeks, 2,060 smuggled ducks were found and killed in Kampot province, 300 ducks from Vietnam were identified and culled in Prey Veng province and a large quantity of quail and duck eggs from Vietnam were destroyed in Kompong Cham province, according to a recent bulletin on bird flu published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
In Kampot alone, provincial officials have confiscated and burned a total of 2,972 smuggled ducks and 7,180 duck eggs over the last two months, said Chan Chesda, director of the province’s agriculture department.
“We are continuing to block Vietnamese farmers who are trafficking ducks and eggs into the province,” he said.
“We have our officials and network along the border to investigate the import of ducks, but they have many different ways of smuggling them in,” he said.
As Yves Froehlich, bird flu adviser for FAO in Phnom Penh, explained, Cambodian farmers say they need the supply. “Because only small-scale duck hatcheries exist in Cambodia, farmers say they have to buy ducks from out of the country to replenish their stocks,” he said.
Trying to stop illegal imports is all the more difficult because infected ducks may not appear sick when Cambodian farmers get them, said experts.
Ducks are considered “silent carriers” of the deadly strain of avian flu, since they can be infected with the H5N1 virus and can pass it on, but do not fall ill themselves, said Megge Miller, an epidemiologist with the Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response office at WHO.
“We’re concerned about the role of ducks as silent carriers of the disease,” Miller said on Monday. “With chickens, there’s a signal that they have the virus when they die off so we can increase our surveillance for the human population. But with ducks, there aren’t any symptoms so there’s no signal for us to heighten surveillance in the human population.”
An unknown portion of the smuggled ducks are likely to be H5N1 carriers, shedding the virus as they relieve themselves in water and on the ground, and potentially passing it on to other animals and people who share their environment, experts say.
Slaughtering them for meat also poses a risk, as particles of infected blood, mucus and feces get sprayed in the air, they say. “If ducks do have H5N1, they can shed a lot of the virus,” Froehlich said.
Earlier this month, the National Animal Health and Production Investigation Center collected 50 blood samples and 100 body-fluid swabs in duck flocks around Boeung Thom lake in Kompong Cham.
All swabs were negative, showing that the virus was not circulating at the time. But 28 out of the 50 blood samples were indeed positive for the virus, which could be due to the virus’ circulating in previous months, said FAO and the WHO. This made those ducks virus carriers that could transmit the disease.
To stop the smuggling, Chan Chesda said, a delegation of Vietnamese officials recently visited Kampot and signed an agreement to try to prevent any illicit poultry trade on either side of the border.
“We agreed with each other that any birds that are imported will be confiscated and burned and there will be no compensation for any side,” he said. “We agreed to fully cooperate and pass information to each other if any place has bird flu.”
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which has been decimating poultry farms in Asia since 2003 and which is now spreading across the globe, has killed more than 70 people, the majority of them in Vietnam and four of them in Cambodia.