Vietnam is just about coping with the H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus. Intrinsic factors like a huge free-range duck population and millions of backyard flocks in remote rural areas, coupled with external threats from neighbouring countries on all sides, make this one of the most difficult situations in the world to manage. Every time the government announces the country is free of avian flu, the virus seems to pop up and put Vietnam on the defensive once again. For instance, within one day of announcing the country AI-free in December 2007, there was a human case (fatality) in the north and poultry outbreaks in the southern Mekong Delta region.
Test results announced on 25 December 2007 proved a four-year-old child in Moc Chau district of the mountainous Son La province bordering Laos in northern Vietnam had died of the H5N1 on 16 December, according to Vietnam News Service. The victim fell sick and was taken to a Hanoi hospital on 14 December with high fever and serious pneumonia.
“He was sick after he and his family had eaten about ten chickens,” a Son La health official told Reuters, adding that poultry had died earlier from an unknown cause at the family farm. According to a later report by Reuters, officials subsequently claimed they could find no evidence of AI in or around the area where the boy died and implicated infected wild birds. The boy’s death occurred just one day after the country was declared free of the disease by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).
Later, MARD said H5N1 had returned to the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh in the southern region of Viet Nam, killing 350 ducks, 430 chickens and 600 geese in the second half of December 2007. Last previous outbreak in Tra Vinh province was October 2007.
Vietnam’s mountainous northern border with China is recognised as a poultry smuggler’s paradise with birds in brought illegally into Vietnam to take advantage of higher prices south of the border. Local police agencies in the northern provinces of Lang Son, Bac Giang, and Quang Ninh recently seized tonnes of chicken illegally imported from China, according to a report by VietNamNet Bridge on 3 January 2008.
Higher prices in Vietnam are fuelled by shortages created by the country’s rigorous culling of infected flocks. Fingers of blame have been pointed at this northern border with China for some time, but for the first time, Cambodia is also implicated said report by Viet Nam News. According to the report, Cao Duc Phat, Minister for MARD, instructed city and provincial administrators to station inspectors at border checkpoints to curb poultry smuggling.
Preventive Medicine Department director, Nguyen Huy Nga, said that the death of the four-year-old boy in Son La Province showed inspection remained lax. The child had died even though the local veterinary office had reported dead poultry in his precinct two months ago. Son La province has a common border with Laos. While there is no direct reference to poultry smuggling from Laos into Vietnam, previous outbreaks in Thailand were traced to infected poultry or poultry equipment (egg trays) from Laos. Poultry smuggling across what are remote and sometimes rugged borders is difficult to pin down and prove, but it would certainly help to explain why the disease is perpetually re-surfacing in Vietnam, in spite of all control efforts including the most comprehensive programme of H5N1 vaccination in poultry anywhere in the world.
Uncontrolled production of free-range ducks is identified by government as extreme high risk to spread and development of H5N1. Director of the Animal Health Department, Bui Quang Anh, said Mekong Delta farmers in particular must carefully monitor free-range ducks and increase vaccination to prevent another outbreak. His officials have recommended that small-scale and scattered free-range duck farming be concentrated large-scale to ensure hygienic produce.
The government started a 30-day campaign on 1 January to clean up poultry farms, hatcheries, slaughterhouses, markets and animal health checkpoints in the period leading up to the Tet festival in February. “A history of diseases in past years shows that the month leading up to Te’ [Lunar New Year Festival] is the time avian flu outbreaks flare up in our country,” explained deputy agriculture minister, Bui Ba Bong. Chicken is the most popular food for Tet, taking place early in February 2008, and there will be a peak in the transport and marketing of poultry in the run-up to this holiday period.
Many experts are convinced that cooler days and nights during November-March ‘winter’ season – especially in northern Vietnam – is the reason for increased outbreaks at this time of the year. Both MARD and Animal Health Department recently warned of H5N1 re-occurring in cooler weather. Others say accelerated activity in the poultry industry in the run up to Tet is to blame. In truth, it is probably a combination of both factors.Avian flu continued to strike down poultry into the New Year (2008) with 350 birds killed at Song Cong Town in Thai Nguyen province 100km north of the capital Hanoi. Birds were variously described as geese, white-winged ducks or Muscovy ducks in three different local reports. Vietnam News said the flock was two-month-old Muscovy ducks. The report claimed a provincial veterinarian said vaccination of Muscovy ducks had not been subsidised since mid-2007, and farmers had to pay for the injections themselves. Vaccines for the species of duck were too expensive, ineffective and affected birds’ development, claimed the vet. Animal health workers slaughtered all remaining birds on the farm, according to the Animal Health Department. Within days, department director, Bui Quang Anh, was claiming that the outbreak was under control.