U.N. Urging Indonesia to Take Stronger Action Against Bird Flu

A rooster and hen look for food at a bird market in Indonesia, where the effort to vaccinate poultry has largely stalled.
A rooster and hen look for food at a bird market in Indonesia, where the effort to vaccinate poultry has largely stalled. (By Ed Wray -- Associated Press)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 23, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- U.N. officials are urging Indonesia to take more aggressive steps to contain the bird flu epidemic in poultry before the current human outbreak escalates and spreads beyond the country's borders.

With avian influenza now diagnosed among birds in two-thirds of the country's provinces, Indonesia must begin the immediate culling of poultry in infected areas and revamp its campaign to vaccinate fowl against the virus, according to officials from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Indonesian government has so far balked at following guidelines set by the agency that call for the slaughter of all poultry in the area surrounding an outbreak. Indonesian agriculture officials said they had instead resorted to immunization. But the effort to vaccinate poultry across the country has stalled in many provinces, with coverage far below the threshold required for it be effective, animal health experts said.

The U.N. agency's chief veterinarian, Joseph Domenech, issued a statement last month airing concerns about Indonesia's performance and calling on the government to make avian flu a national priority. He announced that U.N. officials had offered to help the government improve its virus-control policies.

Carolyn Benigno, the agency's animal health officer for Asia, said in an interview this past week that the agency has continued to speak with the Indonesians about the steps they should take. "They have new provinces getting outbreaks and occurrences of human deaths. It really raised an alarm," she said.

Since July, international testing has confirmed five human cases of bird flu in Indonesia, including three deaths. Health officials say the actual toll is higher and will probably rise.

International health experts cite Indonesia as one of the weakest links in efforts to head off a potential global pandemic, in part because of the country's large size and the poor condition of its public health system. Though it remains difficult for humans to catch the disease, the World Health Organization has warned that the virus could mutate into a form easily contracted by and passed among people, potentially killing tens of millions worldwide.

Indonesian officials say they have been constrained by a lack of funding and scientific knowledge about the disease. But Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono said in an interview that Indonesia has succeeded in limiting the outbreak.

"It's not easy fighting," he said. "Things are getting better now, much better. Things are getting in order."

Since early last year, the government has followed a nine-point program to contain bird flu in poultry, taking such steps as improving safeguards on farms and monitoring flocks, as well as vaccinating birds and, to a limited extent, culling them, Apriyantono said.

According to the U.N. agriculture agency, all poultry should be slaughtered within two to six miles of any outbreak, depending on the specific conditions of the infection. "When there is an outbreak, culling is the only way," Domenech said in an interview from the agency's headquarters in Rome.

The U.S. secretary of health and human services, Mike Leavitt, addressed the value of culling chickens and ducks during his visit to Jakarta this past week for discussions with Indonesian officials about bird flu. He told reporters that culling was "an important strategy, because when the combination of people and birds come together, that's when the virus begins to change, evolve, skip."

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