Cambodia's first reported case of bird flu in commercial chicken flocks has been contained and officials say measures are in place to restrict any further outbreaks.
Government and NGO officials moved quickly to two adjacent farms in Phnom Penh's Russei Keo district on January 23 when the country's first case of avian influenza was confirmed. Ninety percent of the chickens were infected.
Acting under a Ministry of Agriculture sub-decree for emergency disease outbreaks, the chickens were killed and buried and their enclosures disinfected with calcium dioxide.
With international health experts warning of the threats that bird flu poses to human health and agricultural production, governments are collaborating on measures to prevent further spread of the virus.
China is the most recent addition to the list that now stretches to ten countries confirmed of having avian influenza - the bird flu virus that has claimed the lives of ten humans in Vietnam and Thailand, seven of whom were children. Numerous other deaths are suspected to be a result of the bird flu infection. Nineteen million chickens have been slaughtered in a bid to halt further outbreaks.
Other countries confirmed to have the virus are Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia, and Taiwan (which has recorded a different strain).
Meeting in Thailand on January 28, representatives of ten countries-including the as-yet unaffected Malaysia and Singapore-resolved to strengthen collaboration through local and regional measures against the outbreak.
Controversially, Indonesia would not agree to the mass slaughtering of chickens. One official said the Indonesian Government would continue only to encourage farmers to cull infected flocks. According to BBC reports, Indonesia is unwilling to carry out mass killings of flocks, as they lack the resources to compensate their farmers.
According to IPS news, the countries resolved to cooperate on a regional level through joint research and development programs, share best practice initiatives and support low-cost test kits.
In Phnom Penh, Sen Sovann, deputy director at the Department of Animal Health and Production at the Ministry of Health, said all the chickens on the two farms had been culled and all land within a three kilometer radius was under investigation for further outbreaks. Owned by the same family, the two farms are not in a major agricultural area and can be reopened in 45-60 days. Officials are still awaiting the results from other samples sent to a French laboratory for tests.
Sovann said the cause of Cambodia's outbreak was still under investigation, though he suspected illegal movement of poultry was to blame. "We need to train our public to cooperate with us so we can avoid smuggling," he said.
If an uncontrollable outbreak of the disease occurred in Cambodia, the poultry industry could be crippled, with grave flow-on effects for subsistence farmers. "I can't imagine what would happen if an outbreak occurred. That is our biggest worry, and this is why we are trying to respond to this case as transparently and quickly as possible," said Sovann.
About 90 percent of Cambodia's industry is run by small farmers operating family-scale farms of under 1000 birds. Neither government nor NGOs working with Cambodian officials on the virus have resources for compensation payments. "We are sorry to say that, but we just don't have the capacity," said Sovann. "It's very hard to say who could offer the assistance."
By contrast, Thailand's government has approved a $76 million compensation package for its affected farmers.
"When the density of animals is high, that's when the danger of bird flu increases. If the disease hit commercial farms here, that would be serious," said Sovann.
So far, large-scale poultry farms in Cambodia which can operate in excess of 10,000 chickens have heeded the government's warnings, said Sovann. "They took action very quickly and are keeping close guard on the health of their stocks."
Regional tourism could also be affected by the outbreak, though Sovann hopes Cambodia's negative diagnoses of avian influenza in humans will maintain confidence in the tourism market.
A law concerning disease outbreaks is currently being negotiated and may be ratified by the end of this year. Officials would then have greater powers to implement necessary measures to control diseases and also be able to enforce penalties.
Officials from Cambodia's Ministries of Health and Agriculture are working alongside the WHO in their response to the outbreak. Efforts are concentrated on public education about the virus.
Dr Sovann, from the communicable disease control department at the Ministry of Health, said information about the risks and control of the virus had been disseminated to health facilities, workers and main private clinics in the provinces. "We have been educating the public to report any flu symptoms to their local doctor or the national hotline we have set up," he said. "We cannot succeed without participation of all Cambodian people. We all need to work together."
Cambodia has no reported cases of transmissions of the disease to humans. Earlier reports that two Cambodian children were infected have been dismissed by the WHO. Thailand and Vietnam are the only two countries where humans have contracted the disease.
A medical epidemiologist at WHO, Dr Sean Tobin, said several people in Cambodia had exhibited mild flu symptoms, though there had been no confirmed cases and no suspect cases of bird flu. He said it was normal procedure to investigate all people with flu-like symptoms in affected areas.
According to Dr Tobin, children were most susceptible to the virus. "Some adults may have mild infections of the bird flu that they attribute to the normal virus." However, the latest deaths-two Vietnamese sisters aged 23 and 30-seem to contradict the trend of infections occurring only in young or vulnerable people.
Authorities say bird flu is passed on to humans in direct contact with the sick birds. The flu virus can also be excreted in chicken faeces which, when dried, can be inhaled as dust particles by humans. For this reason, the conditions the chickens are living in need to be closely monitored. He said the virus was not commonly passed on to humans. "It is the exception, not the rule," said Tobin.
Laboratories are now collaborating internationally on a vaccine for the virus, though Dr Tobin warns vaccines for influenza usually have a "lag time" of months, not weeks. "In the meantime, the most important thing is to control the outbreak among chickens," he said.
Health experts agree the major risk of avian influenza now is its potential to mix with a human influenza strain and produce an entirely new virus that no one would have immunity to. "In this situation we could have a pandemic which could go around the world," said Tobin.
Last century recorded three influenza pandemics, the most infamous of which was the Spanish flu in 1918, thought to have killed upwards of 40 million people. Two more pandemics occurred in 1957 and 1968. "In some ways we're due for another one," said Dr Tobin.
Avian Flu Hotline: 012856848/012442700/012825424