Lack of Redress Contributes to H5N1 Spread

While the ministries of health and agriculture are taking measures to stem the spread of avian influenza—which claimed its fifth victim in just three weeks on Thursday—a lack of compensation for poultry owners affected by culling is limiting their effectiveness, officials said on Sunday.

Last week, a 5-year-old girl became the second person to succumb to the H5N1 virus in Takeo province’s Prey Kabbas district, where authorities are trying to detect the disease in poultry before it passes to more humans in the area.

Sonny Krishnan, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman in Cambodia, said the Health Ministry’s rapid response team had performed blood tests for the virus on people close to the girl, which all came back negative, and that the Agriculture Ministry’s animal health department was controlling the movement of poultry in the area.

However, Mr. Krishnan said it was a concern that in yet another instance, an outbreak of H5N1—also known as bird flu—was only detected when a human contracted the virus, not when birds in the area started dying.

“Surveillance is supposed to be from poultry deaths, but it’s always a human death. Then when you go to investigate, you find that ducks or chickens have been dy­ing. It’s the reverse of how it should be,” he said.

This lack of detection was partly due to a lack of resources at the Agriculture Ministry, but also to farmers’ fears of their livestock being culled.

“There’s no compensation policy. That is a disincentive for them to report poultry deaths. If they report a death, it can mean that the whole flock could be culled,” he said.

In an effort to raise awareness of the virus, Khim Son, chief of Angk Krasang village—where the 5-year-old died Thursday—said authorities would set up loudspeakers to implore villagers in the district to not touch dead birds and to practice good hygiene when dealing with poultry.

“Most people understand about bird flu, but a few do not understand and because they are poor they don’t want to throw the [infected] birds away,” he said.

The death in Angk Krasang—the sixth case of infection this year—took place just a kilometer from a village in neighboring Snor commune where a 17-year-old girl died of bird flu on January 21.

More than 4,700 birds were culled in the district after the first death, but the virus may have spread via the informal transport of livestock, or in ducks that travel widely in the watercourses, the WHO’s Mr. Krishnan said.

The disincentive caused by the lack of compensation was “definitely a factor” in the disease go­ing undetected long enough to kill a second child in a neighboring village, he said.

In Thailand, where farmers are well compensated when their animals are culled, he said, “they man­age to control human cases.”

Yang Saing Koma, director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, or Cedac, said the lack of compensation was both unfair to farmers and prevented early detection of outbreaks.

“Some people try to hide the information,” he said. “They think if they don’t receive the compensation they [should] try to sell [infected] chickens at the market.”

“Maybe it could be that the government thinks it is not a big case,” Mr. Saing Koma said of the lack of a compensation policy.

Tath Bunly, chief of the Prey Kabbas district animal health department, admitted that the lack of compensation caused problems, but said that Cambodia was too poor to provide cash to farmers for culled animals.

“Farmers do not report the cases to the authorities and they often hide it because they think they will lose profits because the authorities would destroy their poultry,” he said.

“In the future, we hope that our country might make the policy to compensate the farmers.”

An official at the Ministry of Agriculture, who said he was not authorized to speak to the media, also said the government was too poor to compensate farmers.

Concern over the lack of compensation for farmers affected by culling goes back to not long after Cambodia’s first avian flu outbreak in 2004.

Cambodian-born academic Ear Sophal’s book “Aid Dependence in Cambodia,” published last year, highlights the lack of compensation as a key failure of Cambodia’s response to earlier bird flu outbreaks.

“Perhaps the greatest failure of the government in reacting to [highly pathogenic avian influenza] was its unwillingness to compensate poor poultry keepers whose chickens had to be destroyed, or culled, by agents of the state,” Mr. Ear writes, echoing the argument that having no compensation policy prevents outbreaks from being detected.

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