Vol. 5 Num 1019 Fri. April 13, 2007  

Protect our small farmers from bird flu

The problem: Bird flu has now spread from Biman's farm in Savar to seven districts. If the spread of this virus is not stopped, it will eventually wipe out all the small poultry farmers in Bangladesh. Small farms are owned by rural families, and have been set up with minimal investment. They are extremely vulnerable to bird flu infection for the following reasons:
  • Small farms have open sheds, which are easily infected (because wild birds can easily enter the sheds).
  • They sell their eggs and broiler chickens to traders. Traders' vehicles visit many farms everyday, and manure sticks to their wheels. As manure from infected farms carries the bird flu virus, the movement of traders' vehicles can spread bird flu very quickly from one farm to another.

Large poultry farms are far better protected against bird flu infection because they have invested in bio-secure facilities (facilities into which bacteria and viruses cannot easily enter).

  • Large farms have closed tunnel-ventilated sheds. Closed sheds are unlikely to become infected by wild birds.
  • Large farms own their own vehicles, whose wheels are washed and disinfected before they enter the farm. So large farms are less likely to be infected by vehicle movement.

Of course, the outbreak at Biman's farm proves that a large farm that is poorly managed (i.e. which has not implemented the above bio-security measures) can still become infected.

The initial outbreak at Biman was probably caused by a combination of two factors: poor bio-security (open poultry sheds) and the presence of large numbers of migratory waterfowl (which can carry the bird flu virus) on the nearby Jahangirnagar University campus.

The solution: To protect the livelihoods of small farmers, the spread of bird flu must be stopped. This can be accomplished by implementing the National Avian Influenza Plan (prepared last year with FAO/WHO assistance).

The plan requires the government to take strong action whenever there is a bird flu outbreak on any farm.

1. A no-movement zone must be established within a 10 km radius of the outbreak. No chickens, eggs or chicks can be allowed to leave this no-movement zone.

2. All chickens (backyard and farm) within a 3 km radius of the outbreak must be culled (killed). Even if these chickens appear healthy, it is likely that they are already infected. Culling them is necessary to stop the spread of the virus.

3. Farmers whose chickens are culled must be compensated, or they will not cooperate with the culling program.

Unfortunately, the plan has not been fully implemented in handling any of the outbreaks to date.

  • Culling of poultry was carried out within 1 km of the Biman outbreak. This is less than the 3 km radius suggested by the plan.
  • A 10km no-movement zone was not immediately established. This is why the disease has spread to so many districts after the original Biman outbreak.
  • Subsequent outbreaks in Tangail, Jamalpur, Naranyanganj and Jessore were handled even more poorly. Poultry present within 1 km of infected farms were not culled, and a 10 km no-movement zone was not effectively established.

Necessary steps: The government is apparently not implementing the National Avian Influenza Plan because shortage of funds is making it difficult to compensate farmers. Without compensation, the culling policy cannot be implemented, and the spread of bird flu cannot be stopped. Funds must be requested from donors so that farmers can be compensated.

However, if that is the government's decision, it should be implemented strictly in all outbreaks. If the culling policy is to be less conservative, establishment of a 10 km no-movement zone becomes even more critical. These zones must immediately be established whenever and wherever there is a new outbreak.

S M Abdur Rahman is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.