The government is taking the battle against avian influenza in fowl and humans to the villages, especially in rural areas bordering Thailand and Vietnam, where there have been cases recently. With the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is organising forums, roadshows and workshops to increase awareness among farmers of the potential risks.
"Please don't let anyone else suffer like my daughter: protect yourselves when handling sick chickens, separate them and don't eat chickens that have died," Chhean Chit, father of Cambodia's latest victim of bird flu, told a community forum in Kampong Cham, near his home.
The Chits' 13-year-old daughter died after catching bird flu in April 2007. "My daughter died from contact with an infected chicken - she was not wearing a krama [traditional scarf] and gloves," he told the villagers.
Since April, more than 4,000 people from 25 villages have attended sessions in the provinces bordering Vietnam: Svay Rieng, Takeo, Kampong Cham and Kampot. Village meetings have also been held in some of the border provinces with Thailand.
Seven people, five of them children, have died from bird flu in the past four years, according to the FAO. Cambodia was one of the first countries in the region to experience a serious outbreak of avian influenza, caused by the H5N1 virus. It is now more than a year since the last major outbreak, but concerns persist that farmers, especially in the southern provinces, are still at risk because of the continued confirmed cases of the disease in Vietnam.
"Although there has been no outbreak of avian influenza in Cambodia since last April, the risk of another outbreak is ever-present," Etienne Careme, FAO's emergency programme coordinator in Cambodia, told IRIN. "That is why it's so important to improve the country's capacity to detect outbreaks of the disease – at markets, in large flocks and in backyard farms," he said.
Government ministers and senior provincial officials have understood the need for Cambodia to be more prepared. "Avian influenza is a dangerous disease and if we don't know how to prevent it, it will spread very fast," said Keo Kosal, the deputy governor of Memot District. "The government is very serious about taking action to control the disease."
But it is clear that government commitment and action alone will not make Cambodia any better prepared without effective community participation, say specialists. "Awareness is the first step to prevention, but only behavioural change can make these plans effective," said Careme.
|Adding to the risk factor, market workers in Cambodia fail to use protective gloves when handling poultry|
In countries where much of the poultry production is in the hands of big commercial companies, regulations can be effectively implemented and policed. But in Cambodia most poultry-rearing happens in backyards. The average flock is fewer than 20 birds.
So a new approach was essential, involving farmers and their families. Information and instructions need to be communicated from the national level, filtered down to the villagers and then filtered up again. In these forums and workshops, villagers learn from each other.
"We've had sick or dead chickens before and just ate them," said 10-year-old Han Sereyroath from Leak Pi village. "But now we know we must bury dead chickens and separate the ill ones. Now I will make sure that I wash my hands before I eat and after touching chickens. I'm also going to give this information to my friends."
"Live bird markets are a potential source of contamination," said FAO communications specialist Anthony Burnett. "Chickens and ducks are mixed together, market workers slaughter birds without wearing masks or gloves. If there were an outbreak of bird flu there is always a risk it could spread through the market and beyond," he warned. "It is important to work with poultry traders and market workers to help them understand these risks."
Apart from care handling the chickens – wearing protective clothing and basic hygiene – there are several simple rules. Domestic poultry should not mix with wild birds, while ducks and chickens should not be allowed to run together, according to Burnett. "Ducks spread the disease. They don't show recognisable symptoms and they don't die – but they do spread it."
Animal specialists at village level monitor flocks and swabs from sick birds are sent for tests at the provincial laboratory. The FAO has already trained many animal health workers; villagers are encouraged to report any sick birds to them rather than kill the birds or sell the meat.
"I talk to people about how to protect their animals, I go round to homes, and I put up posters. This is a good way of helping others to understand the risk of bird flu and how to protect themselves," said Ma Phirun, 31, one of the specialists in Prea Theat. "People in my village have learned from the posters and tell me about sick chickens, which I then report to the village chief and the district vet."
The Cambodian FAO Avian Influenza project will cost more than US$5 million. The German government ($3,506,892) and USAID ($1,900,000) have provided most of the funds.