By the beginning of January, all 10,000 birds were dead on this duck wholesaler’s farm in Tuol Sang Ke commune, Russei Keo district, having suffered the signature mucus and loss of appetite that are the symptoms of avian influenza.
But when an official from the Agriculture Ministry’s Department of Animal Health and Production visited the farm in late January, the man told the official he had sold the birds.
“I dare not report to the government about the ducks dying at my farm,” the 49-year-old wholesaler, who asked not to be named, told reporters Tuesday.
If the government knew the birds were sick, he said, he would have to pay a bribe to keep officials from closing his farm completely.
The Ministry of Agriculture has acknowledged outbreaks of H5N1 in a few specific locations in Takeo province and Phnom Penh.
But reports from farmers in Russei Keo district Tuesday indicate that many farmers could be hiding bird deaths from authorities, for fear that government actions could worsen their already precarious financial situation.
Closing down farms where bird flu is suspected is necessary to guard against spreading the disease to humans and other birds, said Suon Sothoeun, deputy director of the Department of Animal Health and Production.
Random farm inspections and a surveillance network reaching down to the commune level are in place to keep the government abreast of new outbreaks, he said. But he acknowledged that cases could slip past.
“If you have a population of 1,000, the sample you are checking is not 1,000,” he said.
Pich Na, who raises about 600 ducks and chickens in Tuol Sang Ke commune, said that no officials have visited her farm, about 5 km away from where Cambodia’s first bird flu case was found.
The Jan 12 ban on poultry imports made little difference, as the market for birds dried up almost immediately after bird flu became public, the wholesaler said.
Many farmers whose birds are still healthy are killing their flocks because they cannot afford the $150 per day that it costs to feed 5,000 birds, the wholesaler said.
He said that the government was quick to shut farms down without offering compensation, as has been done in Vietnam.
“They never pay farm owners who aren’t their relatives or associates,” said Tol Ath, Pich Na’s husband.
The Ministry of Agriculture is studying compensation but has made no decisions on whom or how much to pay, Suon Sothoeun said. If farmers want assistance in culling, “we are happy to do that,” he said.
The animal health department has procured protective equipment and disinfectant materials, he said, thanks to nearly $400,000 from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and additional pledges from other countries.
Despite the aid, many farmers remain skeptical of the government’s efforts.
“The government asks for donations from other countries, but that money never goes to the people,” the wholesaler said.