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Indonesia Struggles to Contain Bird Flu

  • Chad Bouchard

Indonesia is struggling to contain the spread of the deadly bird flu virus in people and poultry. The country now has the world's largest number of human bird flu deaths, and critics say it needs to do more to eradicate the disease. But, as Chad Bouchard reports from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the government's efforts are hampered by limited resources and resistance from local communities.

In the isolated mountain community of Dairi in north Sumatra, about 200 villagers file into a packed meeting house. Everybody is talking about a frightening rumor that has been circulating all day.

Bupati Tumanggor, head of the local Dairi district, addresses the restless crowd over a loudspeaker.

He confirms that someone from the village has been hospitalized for avian influenza. Five chickens have tested positive for the H5N1 virus as well. He tells them the next morning all birds within a one-kilometer radius will be killed, to keep the virus from spreading.

Other countries hard hit by the H5N1 virus, such as Vietnam and Thailand, have made significant progress against the disease by killing large numbers of poultry once an outbreak is detected.

In August Indonesia recorded its 60th case of bird flu in humans, 46 of which have been fatal, the highest human death toll from the disease.

And some scientists are concerned this high death rate is partly due to Indonesia's reluctance so far to cull birds.

Tumanggor acknowledges Indonesia has had a difficult time stopping bird flu. But he says the country faces unique challenges. Its population is spread over 17,000 islands, domestic fowl roam everywhere, and there is widespread resistance to the central government among many of its diverse cultures.

"Criticism from other countries is normal," he said. "But sometimes the critics assign blame because they don't really understand Indonesia. Information in the media about this country is not complete. But if they looked at the whole picture, people would understand how difficult our task is, and that we are doing our best with what we have."

John Weaver is an advisor on avian flu with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which is helping Indonesia fight the disease. He says Jakarta's culling program is not rigorous enough. In some cases only 30 or 40 percent of the birds in an area are killed because villagers do not cooperate.

"You know village poultry are recognized as a valuable asset both in terms of their food value, but also they're a liquid asset in that they can be sold to pay school fees or some medical fees, or something like that, so they are valued within the system. One needs to work within communities and address the fact that this is a potential loss to them," said Weaver.

Compensating villagers for their poultry is expensive, and the government currently pays only half the market price for birds that are culled. Some villagers fail to report outbreaks of disease in poultry or they hide their birds during a cull.

Indonesia says the high cost of compensation is one of the biggest barriers to controlling the virus. The government says it needs $900 million for bird flu containment programs over three years but can only afford $150 million.

But international donors have been reluctant to commit funds. Donor nations have asked for details of how the money will be spent but the Indonesian government has so far failed to provide a plan.

Indonesia also caused concern in August when it reduced its annual budget for bird flu programs from $57 million to $46 million. The World Bank said the cuts sent the wrong message to international donors.

Under pressure from the international community, Jakarta has agreed to restore funding to its previous level.

The U.N.'s Weaver says getting the virus under control in Indonesia will require sustained support from donors.

"It's not going to be a quick fix," he said. "It's not a one or two year program, it's a five to ten year program. And it's very resource dependent. And it's dependent on both the commitment of the resourcing within Indonesia - but one has to recognize that that's finite - and the response that's expected is beyond the capacity within Indonesia. So there has to be greater international commitment."

Back in Dairi, police demand residents bring out their chickens to be destroyed. Health workers dressed in sterile white clothes, masks and hoods sweep the village, slaughtering captured birds in the streets.

At the end of a dusty road, a woman who goes by the honorary title of Nandetedi, or "grandma" in the local dialect, says the villagers do not understand.

"You know, we don't even have words for 'avian influenza' in the local language," she said. "We do not know how and why the chickens die. We only know the chickens are sick. All of us are healthy. Moreover, I'm an old person, and I'm not afraid of chickens."

Once the police and health workers have gone, simmering resentment remains over the loss of birds and the damage to the economy.

Indonesia has announced it will expand the culling of backyard poultry, and the country is rolling out a widespread public awareness campaign about bird flu on television and radio stations.

The H5N1 virus cannot spread easily among people but there are fears a mutation may occur that will allow it to do so if more humans catch the disease from infected birds.

And as long as an estimated 300 million chickens continue living in close contact with people, the chance remains for a deadly epidemic in Indonesia. But for now, many bird owners remain unconvinced of that risk.

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