Prathum, whose forefathers had been rice farmers in the wetlands of central Thailand, dropped out of school after fourth grade to follow in the family tradition. The income he earned was "just barely enough to make a living," he recalled.
In the late 1980s, as he continued to toil in the rice fields, Thailand was undergoing far-reaching economic changes. It was becoming a manufacturing center in the globalized market, recording growth rates of nearly 10 percent a year. Rising incomes for many Thais meant greater demand for a better diet, in particular animal protein.
Prathum Buaklee feeds some of the chickens that have brought prosperity to him and many other Thai farmers.
(Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
Nowhere was this truer than in Bangkok, the booming capital. Prathum's home province of Suphan Buri, 70 miles to the north, was strategically located to meet this demand for chicken, duck and eggs.
Taking the lead from a neighbor, Prathum started in 1991 with 300 hens and began selling eggs. His flock grew steadily until it reached 15,000. He bought about 20 acres of land, more than tripling the size of his farm, and ultimately erected seven open-sided poultry sheds suspended above artificial ponds, which he stocked with fish to supplement his income. Each shed stretches about 40 yards under a pitched metal roof. Wood planks splattered with droppings run between the cages.
He bought a pair of Ford pickups, replaced his leaky clapboard hovel with a home three times as large and outfitted it with a color television, refrigerator and air conditioning. He gave each of his three children a computer and sent two sons to college, one of whom is studying veterinary science.
"I feel grateful to the chickens," Prathum said. "Chickens are like human beings. You take care of them well and they'll take care of you."
So when livestock officials came to the farm in December 2003, the order to kill the chickens was a great shock. "They came by the hundreds in trucks, bringing soldiers and prisoners to kill the chickens," said Prathum's wife, Samrouy, 47, her leathery hands raised in exasperation. Avian flu had been discovered in a poultry shed down the road. Thai officials were demanding that all poultry in the area be culled as a precaution. Workers dug a mass grave at the end of the property with a backhoe and buried the birds alive.
"It broke my heart," Samrouy recounted between rounds of collecting eggs. She wiped her rich brown eyes with a red-and-green checked scarf. "I felt that the chickens were like my children."
After nine months, weary of sitting idle, Prathum decided to restock his farm. He draped fishing nets over his sheds, as required under new government regulations, to keep out wild birds that local officials said might carry the disease.
But Prathum adopted none of the other safeguards that veterinary officials recommended, such as barring visitors and other animals from the farm. He continued to raise fish in the ponds, which attract waterfowl that could spread the virus. Neighboring farmers in filthy work clothes visit with Prathum inside the sheds as he feeds the flock and collects the eggs. Even his black dachshund follows him on his rounds.
A Perfect Viral Storm
In Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, the number of chickens nearly tripled from the late 1980s until early last year, according to figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. China recorded a doubling in its poultry population, adding 2 billion chickens since 1988.
This meant that ordinary citizens across these countries were getting much more protein in their diets, with daily intake of chicken doubling in some places and tripling in others. Consumption of eggs increased nearly as quickly.
The number of ducks, another common source of meat in this part of the world, was also up sharply. In retrospect, that was particularly worrisome because experts believe ducks play a crucial role in spreading the disease among birds, because they remain symptom-free longer and wander more widely than chickens.
So far, researchers believe two people have caught the virus directly from another person, according to an article published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine examining how the disease spread within one Thai family.