When Hun Sokha's chickens began dying, first by dozens, then by hundreds, he knew
what to do.
A Ministry of Agriculture vet sprays post-slaughter virus disinfectant at a Veal Sbov chicken farm, 8km southeast of Phnom Penh on National Route 1, near the home of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. On September 21 MAFF vets slaughtered 4500 chickens on this farm in an attempt to prevent the avian influenza virus from spreading.
Sokha took some birds to a laboratory to be tested for H5N1, the avian flu virus.
Results came back positive in late September and inspectors from the Ministry of
Agriculture examined the poultry on Sokha's farm, located in the Kien Svay district
of Kandal province.
The end result: Sokha lost the 4,500 birds on his Veal Sbov commune farm - some to
sickness, and others to culling.
"I invested $10,000 in the farm," Sokha said. "I spent a lot of time
and money for all those chickens, but it was all destroyed very quickly."
Sokha's actions helped control Cambodia's latest outbreak of bird flu, the first
since late June. But not everyone would be so willing to report sick or dying birds.
"From the farmers' point of view, they're not getting compensation," said
Donna Mak, a short-term consultant with the World Health Organization in Cambodia.
"And people with smaller numbers of chickens may depend on them for protein."
This urge to keep quiet - along with the challenges associated with monitoring Cambodia's
countryside - could mean that cases of bird flu go unreported. While the virus has
killed 31 people in Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia has had no reported cases of transmission
"To begin with, it's not that easy to transmit from birds to humans," Mak
said. "But it's possible some people got the disease, weren't all that sick
and got better."
Geography makes a difference. The most recent outbreak, quickly discovered and contained,
was in an easily observable area just outside of Phnom Penh.
"In very remote cases, surveillance is not of the same standard as in western
countries," Mak said. "When people get sick it's often hours to walk to
health centers; they might not be able to get diagnosed."
Jim Tulloch, a representative from WHO, stressed the importance of reporting, encouraging
people to notify the Ministry of Health with information about sick humans and the
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries about cases involving sick animals.
But barriers to reporting are varied. Some Cambodians are not sure when they need
to notify officials.
Kav Srey Ath, who lives in Sokha's district, bought four chickens from a nearby market
shortly after the most recent outbreak of bird flu was discovered. When two started
acting strangely, she killed them and buried their bodies because she was worried
they may have the virus. Then a couple days later, the others also seemed sick, so
she killed them as well.
She didn't tell authorities.
"I didn't tell the government because I'm too busy," she said. "There
weren't very many chickens, so I didn't think it was a big deal."
Ath added that she thought the chickens might have become sick because they ate too
much rice at the market, but she wasn't sure.
According to Mak, people should report small-scale cases of illness as well as large-scale
"Even if they just have five chickens, they should look out for it," she
said. "The virus can spread to humans when you kill and pluck the chickens."
Health officials are particularly concerned about monitoring after the first potential
recorded case of human to human transmission occurred in Thailand last week. Although
the virus does not spread easily from birds to humans, if someone already suffering
from human influenza contracted bird flu as well, the viruses could combine, forming
a lethal and easily transmitted mutant, Mak said.
Such recombination could also occur in other animals, like pigs, that more easily
spread diseases to humans than do birds.
For now, the most recent threat of bird flu in Cambodia seems under control, officials
said. But Mak urged citizens to continue monitoring poultry and humans who work with
"Given that bird flu is endemic throughout Southeast Asia, we'll probably be
seeing more of it," she said. "It's in Thailand, it's in Vietnam, and Cambodia's
right in the middle."
(Additional translation by Jun Soktia)
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