BANGLANE, Thailand -- Prathum Buaklee stepped nimbly along the aging planks running between the cages of his chicken farm, shoveling grain with his meaty hands from a bucket into the feed trays. His feet were bare and caked with dirt. The old plaid shirt hanging on his stocky frame was soiled. And the air was rank with the smell of feathers, droppings and feed.
This soft-spoken farmer is part of an agrarian revolution in Southeast Asia and China that has more than doubled poultry production in barely a decade, bringing pickup trucks, air conditioning and other trappings of prosperity to long-destitute peasants and more protein to the diets of hundreds of millions of ordinary Asians.
Prathum Buaklee feeds some of the chickens that have brought prosperity to him and many other Thai farmers.
(Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
But with chickens now packed into farmyards alongside other livestock, international health experts warn that conditions are set for a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions worldwide if the virus developed into a form capable of spreading among humans.
In its current form, the disease kills about three-quarters of the people who catch it from birds. Since the beginning of last year, 45 people in the region have been infected. Twelve Vietnamese and one Cambodian have died this year.
A year ago, as Thailand became the epicenter of an avian influenza outbreak, local officials descended on Prathum's farm and put his chickens to death along with tens of millions in the rest of the country. The campaign was meant to stem the spread of a disease that has struck nine Asian countries.
The mass culling, however, did not stop the virus. And now, many poultry farmers are back in business, again raising their birds in unsanitary conditions that health experts say pose a threat unprecedented in modern agriculture.
Prathum, 54, has restocked his farm in central Thailand, rebuilding his flock though not his confidence. His brown eyes have grown heavy. Bags hang low on sunbaked cheeks, and a deep furrow cuts across his broad forehead.
"Even if we're afraid of the disease returning, what can we do? Nothing," he said. "We can't run away."
U.N. agriculture officials say farmers can take simple steps to prevent the disease from spreading. They can require that workers disinfect their shoes, change clothing and spray their vehicles before entering a poultry farm. They can ban outsiders from chicken sheds, keep other animals away and keep egg trays and cages clean.
But farmers resist such measures, health and agriculture experts say. And governments in the region lack the money, manpower and, at times, political will to enforce these requirements on an industry that has become a vital component of economic growth.
As a result, the prevalence of the infection in birds makes a new, more deadly human outbreak likely. Public health experts say it is only a matter of time before the flu strain remakes itself, unleashing a disease that is both highly lethal and as easy to catch as an ordinary flu bug.
If this occurs, World Health Organization officials predict that, in the most optimistic scenario, 2 million to 7 million people would die worldwide and that the toll could potentially reach 100 million. Health experts say the virus has already exhibited traits similar to those that caused the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed about 40 million people.
Tommy G. Thompson, former U.S. secretary of heath and human services, told reporters at his farewell news conference in December that avian flu was his greatest health fear. He called it a "really huge bomb" that concerned him even more than bioterrorism.
Poultry and Prosperity
Until 15 years ago, Prathum and other farmers said the area around Banglane was an uninterrupted expanse of glistening emerald rice paddies where villagers traveled in small wooden boats along countless canals. The few roads were dirt tracks navigated by ox cart.