Indonesia Neglected Bird Flu Until Too Late, Experts Say

A worker cleans chickens at a small slaughterhouse in Jakarta. Experts say Indonesia covered up the spread of bird flu in poultry until it had begun to sicken humans.
A worker cleans chickens at a small slaughterhouse in Jakarta. Experts say Indonesia covered up the spread of bird flu in poultry until it had begun to sicken humans. (By Achmad Ibrahim -- Associated Press)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 20, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Oct. 19 -- Indonesian officials covered up and then neglected a spreading bird flu epidemic for two years until it began to sicken humans this summer, posing a grave threat to people well beyond the country's borders, according to Indonesian and international health experts.

Unlike Southeast Asian countries that began to see human cases almost as soon as avian influenza was identified in their poultry, Indonesia had a generous head start to prevent an outbreak among people. But since July, it has registered more human cases than any other country, including three deaths confirmed by international testing. Influenza specialists agree that the actual number of human cases is higher and expect it to rise with the approach of the rainy season.

Health experts say the Indonesian epidemic started in commercial poultry farms, spread among the tens of millions of free-range chickens raised in back yards across the country and then finally infected people. At each step, the Indonesian government failed to take measures that could have broken the chain, while discouraging research into the outbreak.

As a result, specialists are concerned that the cases in Indonesia pose a worldwide threat if the bird flu virus changes and becomes contagious among humans.

"If the government had acted sooner to stamp it out, there would be no outbreak. They have wasted so much time," said Chairul A. Nidom, an Indonesian microbiologist who first identified the virus in this country's birds. "What terrifies me is that it just won't affect Indonesia."

In recent days, the virus has killed birds in Turkey, Romania and possibly Greece, for the first time presenting a danger to European poultry. Russia on Wednesday reported that preliminary tests, conducted after hundreds of birds died south of Moscow, showed the presence of the virus, according to news services. And China reported a fresh outbreak of bird flu in its northern grasslands, where 2,600 birds have died of the disease.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that the chances were increased that avian flu would move to the Middle East and Africa.

Health experts stress, however, that a human pandemic is still most likely to erupt in East Asia. Bird flu is already deeply entrenched among Asian poultry. Moreover, many countries in the region lack both basic agricultural safeguards to prevent the disease from spreading to humans and health care systems able to contain the virus if it does.

Since 2003, at least 60 people in Southeast Asia have died of the illness. U.N. health officials warn the threat could multiply if bird flu develops into a form easily passed among humans, potentially setting off a plague killing tens of millions of people worldwide.

Indonesia, in particular, is a worry to U.N. and other international experts, partly because it has Southeast Asia's largest population of both people and poultry. The country also has an impoverished health care system that has deteriorated significantly since the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the weakening of central government authority following the 1998 ouster of the longtime dictator Suharto.

In an interview with The Washington Post this spring, Tri Satya Putri Naipospos, Indonesia's national director of animal health, first disclosed that officials had known chickens were dying from bird flu since the middle of 2003 but kept this secret until last year because of lobbying by the poultry industry. She also revealed that the government had not set aside any money this year to vaccinate poultry against the virus though officials had trumpeted this as the centerpiece of their strategy to contain the disease.

Naipospos repeated her allegations late last month, but this time in Indonesian in an interview with the influential local newspaper Kompas.

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