Action has been swift to control the latest outbreak of the H5N1 highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (AI) on the tourist haven of Bali. For almost four years, the Indonesian government has reacted only slowly while H5N1 spread in poultry through virtually the entire country including the island of Bali, and then started to ‘pick off ’people especially on Java and Sumatra. But just three deaths on the tourist island of Bali in August 2007 made the government spring into action with and urgency not witnessed before.

After withholding meaningful human H5N1 samples from the World Health Organization (WHO) for many months, the government promptly sent a sample from the first Bali victim, a 29-year-old woman from Jembrana regency, who died on August 13. Triono Soendoro, head of Health Ministry's research and development, said that the sample had been sent to the WHO laboratory in the USA as a precautionary measure. “We have sent a sample of the virus from Bali to CDC in Atlanta this week,” he told AFP, referring to the US Government's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health Minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, said that this sample sharing was necessary to prove the deadly virus had not yet passed from human to human, implying that human H5N1 on Java and Sumatra was of lesser importance. “Besides, it was important to avoid panic in Bali”, she said. “The WHO really needs it [the sample]. Bali is also an important place for tourism,” she told Antara news wire at the State Palace, adding that the government needed to convince the global community that the virus had not mutated and that transmission of the virus was still from animal to animal. “Moreover, there was not an outbreak at all,” said the minister, adding that the sample sent was purely for research and not for commercial purposes.

Within 10 days, there had been two more deaths from bird flu on Bali: a 28-year-old woman chicken seller in Batugaing village in Kediri, (20km west of the capital, Denpasar) and Ni Ketut Sariasih, a 40-year-old woman who died at Sanglah Public Hospital. Several other suspected cases including an infant child were being treated in Bali’s hospitals.

Additional reports suggested the authorities had moved uncharacteristically quickly in culling over 5000 birds around the area of the first victim’s village at Banyar Dangin Tukar Aya in Jembrana district. I Gusti Sanjaya, head of the local agricultural forestry and fishery office, said nearly 5300 chickens were slaughtered by 17 August, all within a 1km-radius of the village.

Gilimanuk port authority on Bali prevented the unloading of over 10,000 chickens and ducks on boats arriving from Java following the discovery of the first AI case in Jembrana. Jembrana district administration ordered the ban to prevent spread of H5N1 into a wider area, said Bali police spokesman, Senior Commissioner Reniban.

The disease is almost certainly endemic on Bali, as on most other Indonesia islands, making it doubtful whether these moves will have more than a negligible impact on the situation.

In the meantime, Bali’s chicken farmers are suffering financially from culling, restrictions on transportation and reports that many tourist hotels are dropping poultry from their menus.