To fill a critical gap in Cambodia’s defenses against avian influenza, a training program is underway to teach villagers how to identify bird flu, contain potential outbreaks and educate neighbors about the virus.
The village-level surveillance system, funded by the US and overseen by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, trains village animal health workers to jump into action when deaths occur in Cambodian poultry flocks, where epidemiologists believe the virus is entrenched.
“Experience shows that if you can control the outbreak at its first stage in poultry you can stop it very quickly,” said Yves Froehlich, bird flu technical adviser for the Phnom Penh office of the FAO.
“If there are any dead poultry, they must make visits back to the farm for five days to see if the mortality is spreading,” he said.
So far, the program has trained roughly 1,500 village animal health workers in six provinces—Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Kompong Cham, Prey Veng, Takeo and Kampot.
In mid-February, plans call for more provinces and municipalities to begin training sessions. This includes Pursat province, which Froehlich said has roughly 2.2 million backyard chickens—the largest amount of chickens in the country even though the province has no commercial farms.
It’s a race against the clock because if a bird flu outbreak occurs in chicken flocks often no symptoms are observed because the death rate is so acute, according to Froehlich. “The infected chickens die in less than 24 hours,” he said.
The virus spreads quickly through flocks and can kill 60 to 100 percent of poultry in a village where an outbreak occurs.
The village workers, who are issued protective gear and equipment and make $8.50 a month, learn basic skills to identify the virus and scrutinize all reported sicknesses and deaths in poultry on commercial and backyard farms. They are trained to bury the carcasses of dead birds and disinfect the area where the deaths occurred.
“If the dead chickens are buried immediately you will not know if they had bird flu, but what is most important for us is immediate control,” Froehlich said. “Sometimes we will have avian influenza and not know it because the birds are buried—but stopping the disease is critical.”
Although there have been no cases of bird flu in humans since mid-April, when a 20-year-old Kampot province woman died of the disease, health officials remain on high alert to possible outbreaks.
Health experts say that a pandemic would occur if the bird flu virus mutated into a deadlier form that could be transmitted from person to person. This could potentially happen if the virus hits a person already infected by a human flu virus and the two influenza strains trade genes, experts say.
Ly Sovann, the chief of the Ministry of Health’s disease surveillance bureau, said that ongoing bird flu education programs are crucial so that Cambodians on the front lines of healthcare in the countryside can detect it accurately and report any possible cases.
Heng Virith, one of the trainers of the village animal health workers, said it is important to educate local populations about the virus’s dangers.
“Our village workers learn about identifying the virus and the disease, how to control and prevent the spread of the virus and to tell villagers and small children not to touch infected or dead birds,” he said from Kampot, where he was conducting a training session.
One key message that the workers often have trouble convincing villagers of is not to sell or buy sick or dead chickens because the infected birds may spread the disease to other flocks and possibly humans, he said. Farmers can also be reluctant to identify potential bird flu outbreaks because of financial hardship.