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Bird Flu Hits Vietnam Right Where It Hurts

Chicken soup is king, and raising poultry is a way of life. Culling the animals affects millions.

April 22, 2005|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — To know the effect of avian influenza here, order a steaming bowl of pho ga, or chicken noodle soup -- if you can find one.

Since last year, pho ga has virtually disappeared in this soup-obsessed city, which has more noodle shops than Seattle has espresso bars.

Pho 2000 -- perhaps the nation's most famous soup cafe owing to a visit by former U.S. President Clinton five years ago -- has literally crossed the dish off its menu. Once commonplace eateries that specialize in chicken soup have closed by the dozen.

"No one will buy chicken," said the manager of Pho 24, a trendy downtown soup restaurant. "Try some beef."

After 18 months of bird flu outbreaks, the economic effect of the epidemic can be seen just about everywhere in Vietnam, from empty soup bowls in the cities to the closure of poultry farms in the hinterlands of the Mekong Delta.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that Southeast Asia as a whole has suffered about $10 billion in economic losses because of bird flu. Major poultry exporters hit by the outbreaks, particularly Thailand, have suffered the greatest financial losses.

But in Vietnam, poultry is not just an industry, it is a way of life.

About 90% of the nation's more than 200 million farm birds live in the backyards of subsistence rice growers, laborers and even urban professionals, according to an analysis by the Vietnamese agricultural ministry. Before the flu outbreaks, the vast majority of Vietnamese households, including nearly 70% of the poorest people, sold poultry to supplement their income, according to a World Bank study. Many more sold eggs.

Now, the bird flu epidemic has forced the government to remove chickens and ducks from large swaths of land.

Live poultry has been banned in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, imports have been curtailed and more than 40 million birds have died or been culled by government order.

"I'm very fed up with raising chickens," said Nguyen Thi Suong, a Mekong Delta farmer.

*

In an epidemic spread by migrating birds, there is no one place that can be identified as its epicenter. The virus has winged its way across Southeast Asia.

The hamlet of Hoi Xuan, about 35 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City down bumpy Highway 1, is as good a place to start as any. It is at the heart of Long An province, in the nation's rice bowl. Of the 40 million birds that have died in Vietnam because of bird flu, nearly 8 million have been from this province. About 85% of its flocks were destroyed last year by the disease known here as cum ga, or chicken flu.

The rice paddies of Hoi Xuan are about 1,000 miles from urban Hong Kong, where bird flu first appeared in 1997. The government there killed every duck and chicken in the territory, more than 1.5 million. The outbreak was contained, but the virus reappeared in 2001 and has surfaced in parts of Southeast Asia every year since.

Culling birds has been the main strategy for preventing the virus from spreading to people. According to the World Health Organization, there have been only 108 officially confirmed human cases, but each one increases the chances of the virus mutating into an easily transmissible form. With little or no immunity to the disease, humans are easy victims.

Since the beginning of 2004, there have been 51 confirmed deaths related to bird flu in the region, according to the WHO.

Health officials suspect that many fatalities are not being reported because disease surveillance in some countries is primitive.

Myanmar, for example, has reported no bird flu this year, even though it borders hard-hit Thailand. Cambodia, which lies between Vietnam and Thailand, has reported only three deaths.

Most of the deaths, 36, and confirmed infections, 68, have been reported in Vietnam, which may reflect the country's more developed health reporting system.

Among waterfowl, the virus, formally known as avian influenza H5N1, is relatively innocuous, often causing few noticeable symptoms. For chickens, however, it is a stunning killer.

Suong's husband, Ho Van Nghia, recalled feeding his chickens one day and returning a few minutes later to see the birds falling down in front of him.

"The family was very frightened," said the 41-year-old chicken farmer in Hoi Xuan.

The government ordered all of the surviving chickens burned.

Nghia made a makeshift pyre. The stench was overwhelming, so he spent six hours suffocating the birds by stuffing them into plastic bags, then threw the bags into a hole.

He lost 1,000 chickens. The family naively ate some of the infected birds. Fortunately they were thoroughly cooked and no one became ill.

Nghia took out loans and started over with 2,500 birds. In January, exactly one year after the first outbreak, bird flu hit again. All of his birds died or were culled.

The government paid him the standard 32 cents per culled bird, a fraction of their value. Nghia figures he has lost more than $5,000 from bird flu, more than 10 times the average annual income.

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