Bangladesh bird flu out of control as FAO and WHO step in

Gravity of the situation is clearly recognised by FAO urging Bangladesh to adopt and implement a long-term bird flu strategy without delay.

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Bird flu in Bangladesh is out of control and the country on the brink of a disaster. The small but heavily populated country linking Indian Sub Continent with South East Asia faces destruction of its hard fought for modern poultry industry, and acute danger of human cases as the virus spreads to backyard poultry.

The disease started in central Bangladesh around the capital Dhaka but recent focus shifted sharply to northern and north western districts along the border with India. Latest outbreak is on three farms in Lalmonirhat district in the extreme north and bordering West Bengal state in India. 78,000 chickens were culled cull in week beginning 18 June.

Gravity of the situation is clearly recognised by FAO with Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech urging Bangladesh to adopt and implement a long-term bird flu strategy without delay.

In just 10 years the Bangladesh poultry industry has become worth $2 billion with annual turnover of $750 million, and was still increasing at 50 per cent per year. Net result is a highly integrated industry supported by equipment manufacturers, veterinary, hatchery and transport businesses and feed mills with maize production increased to meet increased feed resource demand. Every year 200,000 poultry farmers employing over 5 million people produce 250 million broilers and 6 billion eggs to feed 147 million people squeezed into a land area roughly the same size as Iowa State in the USA.

Huge credit support of $1.5 billion with heavy concentration in Central Bangladesh around the capital city of Dhaka makes the industry particularly susceptible to any disasters. And disaster threatens with H5N1 pushing poultry meat and egg wholesale prices below cost of production. Spread of Newcastle disease alongside bird flu is aggravating losses.

Within several weeks of the first outbreak wholesale selling price of eggs at $3.75 – 3.90 per 100 had slipped below production costs of $4.77 having fallen from $5.25 – 5.42. Price of chicken stood at $0.38 per kg, a fall of 44 per cent with hundreds of farmers forced to sell their birds and eggs and giveaway prices.

Bird flu has hit the industry particularly hard in Savar and Gazipur districts where over 25 per cent of new farms set up in the last 10 years are located. Lending organisations including commercial banks and NGOs (non government organisations) are now uncertain about retrieving loans. According to the District Livestock Office in Gazipur there are 7,135 layer farms and 5,336 broiler farms with a total poultry population of 27 million birds in this district alone. Most farm owners are faced with a huge debt burden and an uncertain future said Taher Ahmed President of Bangladesh Egg Producers’ Association.

On top of these problems in the commercial sector, H5N1 is now hitting what Bangladesh calls ‘indigenous species’, backyard birds including fowls, ducks and even pigeons as predicted by poultry expert M.M. Khan (Bangladesh beaten almost before H5N1 began – 18 May 2007).

Recent cases in backyard poultry are concentrated in Nilphamari district (Rajshahi division) in northern Bangladesh and close to the border with India. In the Jaldhaka upazila (sub district) alone over 6000 chickens, many ducks eggs and pigeons were destroyed at several hundred households from 10 to 17 May. Inhabitants in badly hit Berubon village were advised by the upazila administration not to rear chickens, ducks and pigeons over the following 12 weeks. This was followed quickly on 20 May by an even bigger cull of 8000 free range and layer birds at over 400 households in the nearby Domar upazila.  

As well as threatening food security in rural Bangladesh there appears real risk of H5N1 moving into its human dimension just as happened in Indonesia and elsewhere. FAO said the situation remained “of serious concern” and urged Bangladesh to come up with a long-term strategy. “Bangladesh has a real chance to get the virus under control, if it commits to a full-scale comprehensive national control campaign”, said Domenech. Tightened control over movement of people, animals and goods in the virus-affected areas and basic biosecurity measures, including disinfection and protective clothing, are paramount.

FAO is recommending culling of poultry in affected areas, minimum hygiene standards at slaughter points in live markets, targeted poultry vaccination and upgrading of veterinary laboratories for fast diagnosis of suspected outbreaks. Bangladesh, said FAO, must also look into potential spread of virus along the market chain through for example collection of eggs and distribution of day-old chicks and poultry feed.

There was good news from the World Bank at the end of May when it pledged more than $30 million to finance a ‘bird flu fighting project’ for Bangladesh that will last until 2012. And just as well because the during June the disease exploded across new northern districts of Dinajpur, Jaipurhat and Lalmonirhat all in Rajshahi division 450-500 km north of the capital Dhaka, and bordering West Bengal state in India.

More than 250,000 birds have been slaughtered and 2.2 million eggs destroyed on 71 farms in 16 districts since the first outbreak in February 2007.

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