LAOS Tackling bird flu

 3rd Mar 2008

VIENTIANE, LAOS (March 3, 2008) – When the latest avian influenza outbreak hit northern Laos this month, a local veterinarian picked up the phone and called the new national avian influenza hotline. The free hotline, which is being officially launched this week, is a crucial early warning system that helps the government to track and monitor possible cases of bird flu in Laos. Early warning means early action, fewer infected birds, and less impact on the poor farmers who rely on poultry for food and trading. Here in Vientiane capital, many residents are still recovering from last year’s outbreak of the virus. In Dongbang village, all 150 families lost their ducks and chickens when bird flu ripped through Vientiane capital and Vientiane province last year. But before ducks started turning up dead, none of the village residents had ever heard about avian influenza.

This is the kind of situation CARE is working to prevent. With education, people learn how to identify potential cases of avian influenza, how to protect themselves and their poultry from infection, and how to report a potential case of the virus. The hotline is the latest joint initiative between CARE, the government and several other agencies, and is funded by the Centers for Disease Control.“It is critical for people to report any suspected avian influenza case as quickly as possible,” said Monica Spedding, CARE Laos’ Avian Influenza Project Coordinator. “Last year people moved poultry from the red zone to other areas to avoid culling, so the outbreak spread quite quickly.”Avian influenza, or ‘bird flu’, re-emerged in Asia in 2003 as a threat to poultry. But the virus, which has been found in more than 60 countries, gained international attention because the H5N1 strain can make the jump to humans, sparking a fear of a global flu pandemic.

More than 234 people have died of bird flu since 2003, mainly in Indonesia, Vietnam and China. There have been two human cases of bird flu in Laos – both victims died. But the threat to livelihoods is a more immediate concern to the poor farmers living in countries affected by bird flu. In Laos, where a quarter of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, poultry and eggs are a crucial source of extra income to send children to school or buy extra food for the family. And so in Dongbang village last year, when dead ducks started appearing along the river, the free meat was too tempting to ignore.“We saw many of the poorer families take the ducks home to cook,” said Keth Bangkhame-Phao, the village women’s union volunteer. “And then the poultry in that family all died. Within days, all the poultry started to die. We were very scared. We didn’t know anything about avian influenza. We couldn’t do anything.”In rural areas, chickens and ducks run free through the village, scavenging for food. Many families can’t afford the materials to build fences, or the chicken feed they would have to buy if the birds couldn’t roam free to find food for themselves. So like children in a schoolyard, if one bird gets sick, they all get sick. Government authorities confirmed avian influenza in Bangkhame-Phao’s village, and proceeded to kill all chickens, ducks, poultry and pet birds. Across the province, all poultry were killed to stop the spread of the disease.

CARE and government staff came to work with the villagers, teaching them important information about the virus, but also to learn from the villagers – why did the outbreak spread so quickly, and how can that be minimized in the future.“When the two people died last year, it made an impact. But people forget,” said Spedding. “People know what’s going on in other countries, but they think ‘that’s them, this is us’.”But the disease does not respect borders – the current outbreak in northern Laos is on the border with Myanmar and China, which have also suffered outbreaks in the same area. A regional approach is crucial, which is why CARE’s avian influenza programs are coordinated across four countries: Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

It is a group effort, and CARE works closely with the local governments, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other agencies to reach as many people as possible. Posters, short plays, education sessions – even karaoke and a “Super Chicken” mascot: CARE teams use everything they can to spread the word. The hotline is one more step in the process, enabling people to quickly report dead poultry, but also ask questions and access information about avian influenza.“When we saw dead poultry before, we just thought it was normal. Now, we know what bird flu is,” said Bangkhame-Phao. “We are not afraid because we follow good protection. If there is a dead duck we will call the authorities right away.”

For more information, please contact:

Bill Dowell, CARE International, Geneva,

About CARE: Founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. CARE has more than six decades of experience delivering emergency aid during times of crisis. Our emergency responses focus on the needs of the most vulnerable populations, particularly girls and women. Women and girls are at the heart of CARE’s emergency relief efforts because our experience shows that their gains translate into benefits for families and communities.

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