Firm action needed in confronting entrenched avian influenza flu

Most vendors of live and slaughtered chicken in Indonesia express little concern about avian flu and the potential for humans to contract it
(Brennon Jones/IRIN)

As the Indonesian government moves to stem the spread of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its latest report stated that Indonesia’s bird-flu situation remains "critical”.

The FAO report’s writer, Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech, said: “I am deeply concerned that the high level of virus circulation in birds in the country could create conditions for the virus to mutate and to finally cause a human influenza pandemic.”

"The human mortality rate from bird flu in Indonesia is the highest in the world,” he added, “and there will be more human cases if we do not focus more on containing the disease at the source, which is animals."

The Indonesian government looks askance at the FAO release, according to Bayu Krishnamurti, the Indonesian executive director of the National Committee for Bird Flu Control and Pandemic Preparedness, saying it has been working closely with FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) on tackling the bird flu situation in the country. The Indonesian government said the criticism should not just be leveled at it alone.

More Asia bird flu reports
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“What FAO said is basically a confirmation on information we have already known since 2006,” said Krishnamurti. “We also know that the virus has mutated, but no one, I mean no experts, including the Indonesian government, can tell when, or in what form a pandemic in humans might take place.”

Awareness campaigns

Avian influenza is deeply entrenched in 31 of the archipelago’s 33 provinces, with the virus endemic in Java, Sumatra, Bali and southern Sulawesi, while sporadic outbreaks were reported in other areas, according to FAO.

The government has been mounting public awareness drives and government agriculture and veterinary specialists are regularly surveying farms and markets. Awareness campaigns are also underway.

The latest human death, on 15 February 2008, has brought Indonesia’s bird-flu death toll to 105 of 129 diagnosed cases. Both figures are the highest in the world.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
A chicken market in Surabaya City, East Java Province, Indonesia. Health authorities are concerned about the spread of bird flu to humans, particularly those in contact with poultry

Krishnamurti said that although the overall death rate from human avian influenza is increasing, “it has to be acknowledged that within the last two years the mortality rate [of those infected] has declined to 30 per cent”.

The most common way to contract the H5N1 virus is through human contact with infected fowl. Particularly prone to infection is the country’s chicken population of 1.4-billion, some 20 per cent of which are scattered in and around 30 million backyards where people raise poultry for food or income.

Containing the spread

"We have also observed that new H5N1 avian influenza virus strains have recently emerged, creating the possibility that vaccines currently in use may not be fully protecting poultry against the disease," Domenech warned.

"Inconsistency and a lack of coordination between government agencies are the main obstacles to containing the spread of bird-flu virus," said Try Satya Naipospos, an expert and former deputy of the National Bird-Flu Commission.

The Indonesian government, she told IRIN, “has not been serious and tough enough" in attempting to contain the spread of the virus.

Naipospos said that despite a law that was passed early in 2007 banning backyard poultry farming and regulating the poultry industry, the policy has not been effectively implemented. Another government plan, to place commercial poultry farms and slaughterhouses away from residential areas, has yet to move forward.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
At the provincial hospital in Surabaya City, a nurse takes full biohazard measures before entering one of the hospital’s handful of isolation wards

"What we can see in the field is that right now in many areas, particularly in the capital Jakarta and its nearby regions, a policy banning fowl in the neighbourhood areas is no longer working," Naispospos said.

“Bird-flu virus will remain within neighbourhood areas - particularly in the capital, Jakarta, and surrounding areas - unless a new breakthrough is taken," said Marthen Malole, a veterinary expert from the state-run Bogor Institute of Agriculture, who has become an outspoken critic of the government‘s avian influenza policy.

"Unless the government is firm with its policy,” she said, “the bird-flu virus will spread further and I am afraid it will become worse.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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