CHIANG RAI, Thailand -- As the pair of fighting cocks lunged at each other through the air, spectators surged against the edge of the ring with anticipation.
Feathers flew. Blood oozed from wounded eyes and throats.
Spectators lean in at a cockfight in Thailand's Chiang Rai province, risking contact with blood that could harbor the bird flu virus.
(Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
Phapart Thieuviharn, a lifelong cock breeder with intense brown eyes and black hair speckled with gray, shifted anxiously on the edge of his seat in the concrete bleachers, clutching the notepad on which he had scribbled his bets. Within moments, when one of the roosters surrendered to its injuries and retreated, hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars would change hands in the arena, located down a dirt track deep in the rice paddies of northern Thailand.
But Phapart and 125 other spectators were wagering more than banknotes. According to international health experts, they were gambling with their lives.
Cockfighting, popular in many parts of Southeast Asia, is suspected of spreading the highly lethal bird flu virus from poultry to humans through contact with blood, feces and droplets of fluid. It is one of several cultural practices, including the eating of raw duck blood and the raising of chickens in back yards, that are threatening to help spark a global pandemic that the World Health Organization warns could kill tens of millions of people.
For centuries, these practices posed no human threat. But a dramatic increase in poultry farming in the region in the past 15 years has allowed avian influenza to become entrenched in the bird population. Now, these cultural routines represent a potential springboard for a human epidemic.
"There will be opportunities for the virus to take advantage of these practices," said Klaus Stohr, director of WHO's global influenza program. "They didn't cause trouble before, but now they do."
So far, the virus has killed 71 people in Southeast Asia. Though it remains difficult for a person to catch the disease from someone else, each human case presents a chance for the virus to mutate genetically, making it far easier to spread that way and spawn an epidemic.
Vietnamese have traditionally eaten a dish called tiet canh vit, prepared from duck blood, stomach and intestines, to mark the anniversary of a death in the family and other special occasions. Health investigators suspect that as many as five people from two families near Hanoi contracted bird flu this year after dining on this pudding.
Markets in several countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia, have long sold live chickens and ducks, but health experts now warn that the virus can be spread by sick birds to other poultry and to people who buy and sell them, especially if they do not wear protective gear. At Phnom Penh's cavernous Orussey Market, for instance, live chickens and ducks are hawked on muddy floors, where they are crammed together, legs bound. In the warren of aisles, peddlers with bare hands butcher, pluck and wash them.
Millions of villagers across the region, meanwhile, raise chickens in their back yards and even inside their homes. When the birds fall sick, villagers are more likely to eat them than dispose of their bodies, U.N. agriculture officials say.
Often, the home-raised birds are fighting cocks. In Thailand alone, estimates put their number in the millions. According to WHO and local news reports, infected fighting cocks may have caused at least eight confirmed human cases of avian influenza in Thailand and Vietnam since the beginning of 2004.
In September, the virus killed an 18-year-old Thai man who raised fighting cocks outside Bangkok. Thai health officials said he had the habit of sucking mucus and blood from the beaks of his injured roosters and sometimes even slept with his birds. Earlier last year, a 13-year-old boy who frequented cockfights in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City and often held the birds before the bouts also succumbed to the disease.
Phapart, 47, recalled learning to raise cocks from his father and grandfather. As a boy, he refused to go to the barbershop unless he could take along his favorite rooster. As a teenager, he rose hours before school began to train his cocks and then pitted them against those of his teacher.