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Bird Flu Prompts Mass Killing of Chickens in Thailand - 2004-01-28


Health officials in Asian are scrambling to contain an outbreak of bird flu that has devastated the region's poultry industry and killed at least 10 people. There are fears of a human epidemic if the virus begins to move from people to people. As a result, governments in the region are killing all chickens in and around infected areas.

It is mid-morning at the chicken farm of Khun Malee Suwannasri, in Song Phinong district, a farming region in the rice paddy lowlands of central Thailand.

A wooden shed stands on stilts over a pond. More than 8,000 egg-laying hens live inside, in rows of cages. In the water beneath, thousands of carp swim about with their mouths open to catch the food that falls from the floorless coop.

Today, normal activity has stopped. Instead, men wearing facemasks and orange rubber gloves walk the planks between each row, pulling the red hens out of their cages and stuffing them into gunnysacks.

The men are from Thailand's Agriculture Ministry and they are culling this farm's hens. The birds will be disinfected and then buried alive.

Up the road, Owner Khun Malee sits in a shed surrounded by stacked cartons of eggs, which also must be destroyed. Khun Malee, a heavy-set woman with metal-rimmed glasses, speaks quietly about the disaster that has befallen her.

"I feel very sad," she said. "The chickens provided us a profit. Now they are gone. I feel pity for them."

The Thai government has promised to pay her the equivalent of $1 for every hen that is destroyed, but Khun Malee says new hens will cost 2.5 times that amount. The government says it will lend her the money to cover the difference.

She still has the fish in the pond, but she will have to buy food for them now that the chickens are gone.

Her farm will be disinfected several times before she can resume her business again, at least six months from now. She does not know how she will survive until then.

Khun Malee's farm is one of 400 chicken farms in this district. All of the district's two million chickens are being destroyed. Similar culls are under way in dozens of other districts where the disease has been found.

On the edge of her land, near the road, the sacks of chickens are thrown into a newly dug pit, about seven meters in diameter.

The sacks are covered with lime and disinfectant. Then a powerful backhoe covers the sacks with dirt.

The workers, their job finished here, move on to the next farm.

Dr. Santi Prasithphol is the district's sole government veterinarian. Sitting in a large, busy room at district headquarters, he oversees the extermination and tries to explain to farmers why the government is destroying their livelihoods.

"Some farm owners disagree at the beginning," he said. "But after we explain the dangers of the outbreak to them and after the prime minister came to visit and explained, they all understand."

Nevertheless, the Thai news media report that some farmers are angry, and accuse the government of hiding the outbreak to protect exports. The government denies the charge.

The epidemic has devastated Thailand's $3 billion a year poultry industry. But the government fears an even greater crisis, which could occur if the virus changes and begins to spread from human to human.

As a result, the Thai government is moving as quickly as possible to contain the epidemic, though it can do little right now for people like Khun Malee, who have lost everything.

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