In late January, five of the 10 chickens owned by Leng Lal, a subsistence rice farmer in Kratie province, suddenly died.
Although Mr. Lal, 40, said he knew the dead birds might be dangerous and he should burn and bury the carcasses, he instructed his 8-year-old son to prepare the chickens to be cooked.
A week after the family feasted on the dead poultry, the young boy and his 2-year-old sister started displaying symptoms of H5N1 avian influenza, or bird flu.
Soon afterward, the two children died in the Kompong Cham Provincial Referral hospital.
“I am really, really sad that my children are dead and I really don’t know now what my wife and I will do, but we needed to eat and I thought it would be a shame to waste the chickens…so when they died I decided to cook them for food,” Mr. Lal said Wednesday.
Mr. Lal had heard the warnings about bird flu and knew the procedures he should follow if any of his birds died or became sick, but like many other poor villagers, he decided that a meal for his children outweighed the risk of contracting the disease.
“In Snoul district, a lot of people eat chickens and ducks after they have died instead of burning and burying them,” said deputy district governor Men Vanna, adding that authorities have been working with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health to educate people about the threat of H5N1.
“But these are poor people who do not want to waste livestock that they have spent a long time feeding,” he said.
A public health campaign to teach villagers how to keep from spreading bird flu was launched across 10 provinces by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health at the end of January, just prior to the latest deaths.
But, according to Koy Hout, director of Kratie’s agriculture department, educating villagers about the dangers of eating dead poultry can prove difficult, and many still try to bring their sick poultry to sell in the markets.
“We are trying to spread the message, and importantly we are trying to ensure sick poultry is not sold to other people or at the market,” he said.
“But people are conditioned by habit, and for a long time they may have eaten birds that are sick and it has not killed them, so why should they suddenly die now?”
Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Vietnam, the government does not offer compensation for poultry that is culled to prevent the spread of H5N1. This discourages subsistence farmers from reporting dead or sick poultry. Instead, they often rush sick and dying poultry to sell in the market, ensuring the disease will spread.
“Yes, people are afraid of losing their birds. It is a very important matter of livelihood for them, so compensation would help,” said Vicky Houssiere, communications officer at the WHO in Phnom Penh.
Minister of Agriculture Ouk Rabun said Wednesday that Cambodia does not have a policy of paying compensation to farmers who lose their poultry due to H5N1.
“The people should not have to be paid to kill their chickens and ducks, they should understand that it is in their best interest,” he said.
“Our ministry has a long-established system of preventing and dealing with H5N1, and when we discover the virus, we kill the birds.”
Last year saw the worst outbreak of H5N1 with 12 fatalities from the disease.
Ly Sovann, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s department of communicable disease control, said his department tries its best to educate, villagers on how bird flu spreads between humans, and on the importance of early detection.
“I know poverty is a grave issue, but life is an even graver issue and you will more than likely die if you are infected with H5N1,” he said.