It will take more for avian flu to spread rapidly among people. The current H5N1 strain would have to acquire genetic material from a human flu bug in a process called re-assortment. The worst fears of public health experts could come true if a person caught both flu strains at the same time. Scientists, however, have demonstrated that this mixing of strains could also occur in other mammals, notably pigs. Ominously, the Asian swine population has also increased significantly.
It could be the gathering of a perfect storm: dense concentrations of chickens, pigs, aquatic birds and people. "It's clear that Southeast Asia poses the greatest risk today of a new virus unfolding and coming forward as a pandemic strain," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "Darwin could not have created a more efficient re-assortment laboratory if he tried."
Prathum Buaklee feeds some of the chickens that have brought prosperity to him and many other Thai farmers.
(Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
Counting on Good Fortune
U.N. and other agriculture experts say the cost of adopting simple safeguards is low but requires a change in attitude, as happened in the United States and Europe when they went through their own chicken revolutions nearly four decades ago.
The dramatic increase in poultry production on both sides of the Atlantic was fueled by rising incomes after World War II, rapid urbanization and technical breakthroughs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched an aggressive campaign to educate farmers about safety, said Carol Cardona, a poultry veterinarian at the University of California at Davis. Farmers, who realized they had much to lose if disease broke out, readily adopted the measures, she said.
Nirundorn Aungtragoolsuk, director of disease control in the Thai department of livestock development, said his government recently adopted strict regulations for large, export-oriented chicken farms. But the rules do not apply to most Thai farms.
"They have done it their way for a long time and we cannot change it overnight," Nirundorn said, adding that his department was too understaffed to enforce requirements.
Prathum admitted he was counting on good fortune to avoid a bird flu outbreak among his flock. "I'm still scared, but what can I do?" he said. "We'd never had bird flu before. It just came."
He acknowledged that his sons had been encouraging him to adopt modern safeguards. His older son, the student of veterinary science, had been particularly outspoken. "I may not be able to learn about these as fast as young people," Prathum said. "I'll retire after a while and pass the farm on to my son. Then he can do what he wants."