China's Remote Villages Portend A Tough Fight Against Bird Flu

Li Jiwei, a 27-year-old farmer in Wu Yuegou village, watches as chickens in his compound peck for food. Farmers in remote villages across China have made a tradition of keeping a few chickens around the barnyard.
Li Jiwei, a 27-year-old farmer in Wu Yuegou village, watches as chickens in his compound peck for food. Farmers in remote villages across China have made a tradition of keeping a few chickens around the barnyard. (Photos By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 20, 2005

WU YUEGOU, China, Nov. 19 -- Chickens ranged freely down the single mud lane of Wu Yuegou village, pecking at stray seeds and scattering with excited clucks when the dogs came barking. Nobody knows of any plans to vaccinate them against bird flu, their owners said, despite the clarion calls in Beijing for a nationwide campaign to check the feared disease.

"Nah, there's been nothing like that here," scoffed Li Jiwei, 27, a farmer who keeps 10 chickens in the brick-enclosed compound where he lives with his wife and their 4-year-old son.

In this small community in the plains of northern Henan province, and across the rest of China, farmers in remote villages have made a tradition of keeping a few chickens around the barnyard. Fowl provide eggs and meat for the family and, if times get tough, can be sold off for a little cash until the crops come in. But they also constitute a daunting challenge for China in its efforts to ward off avian flu by a massive vaccination campaign.

Much of China's poultry industry -- the largest in the world -- is large-scale commerce, and thus easy to enlist in preventive measures. But more than half the country's 1.3 billion residents live in the countryside, presenting health officials with an atomized and hard-to-reach target as they try to curb the spread of bird flu among tiny flocks raised by farmers for their own use.

The government reported two new outbreaks of bird flu Friday, bringing to 15 the number detected over the last month and dramatizing the stakes should the disease get out of control. Two human cases of the disease already have been reported, and one person has died. In reaction, the government has moved vigorously to prevent further spreading. Nearly a million officials and soldiers were mobilized in Liaoning province in northeastern China to bring an outbreak there under control this week, officials said.

"Just as we conquered the SARS epidemic in 2003, we will surely conquer bird flu as well," Premier Wen Jiabao declared during a visit to a factory near Beijing that makes anti-bird flu drugs for humans.

The disease has killed 67 people since 2003 across Asia, with outbreaks reported in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand in addition to China. But Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization representative in Beijing, said there was no evidence so far that the deadly H5N1 strain had been transmitted from human to human. Specialists regard preventing such transfers as the key to heading off a worldwide pandemic.

Jia Youling, the Agriculture Ministry's chief veterinary officer, said Tuesday that the government would try to get flu vaccinations to China's entire poultry population -- an estimated 14 billion chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. In remarks on the official People's Daily Web site, he emphasized the difficulty of such an undertaking given that small flocks have traditionally been kept on millions of family farms.

Jia's comments evoked images of the all-out campaigns of the past, when all of China seemed to be swatting flies during an infestation in the 1960s, for instance, or when millions built miniature steel ovens in their back yards in response to an appeal from Mao Zedong.

But times have changed. International health officials said they had detected no signs of the national mobilization that would be necessary if Beijing genuinely sought to reach every bird in every barnyard. Instead, they suggested, the Chinese government probably intends to intensify what already has been a strong vaccination and culling program in areas where bird flu has broken out, and to encourage as many farmers as possible to get their poultry vaccinated even before the disease strikes their regions.

"I think it's more of an aspirational goal," said an international health official speaking on condition of anonymity because the Chinese government regards such information as sensitive. Efforts to elicit more information on the plans from the Agriculture Ministry went unanswered.

For millions of small farmers like Li, that means trusting to luck rather than vaccinations, at least for the time being. But Li is not unaware of the dangers of bird flu. Disease has struck chickens in Wu Yuegou village before, he said, and the farmers never found out what had made the flocks ill.

"We're very careful about our chickens," he added. "We never let them out of the compound, because every year somebody's chickens get sick and die."

Even though the chickens in Li's village have not been vaccinated, officials in surrounding Yiyang County appear to have reacted to the call for action from Beijing. The Communist Party's tight organization at every level of the country's administration has long been an effective tool for handing down orders.

Slogans have gone up on walls along the tree-lined country roads around Wu Yuegou. "Mobilize everywhere to be victorious in the bird flu prevention campaign," said a red banner waving in front of a hospital. The county's Communist Party chief, Tan Jianzhong, went on television to urge farmers to be careful and have their poultry vaccinated. Animal husbandry officials have begun regular visits, sometimes every two or three days, to monitor against any sign of the disease.

"I haven't paid too much attention to this, because we haven't had any cases," said Wang Xingfu, elected leader of the nearby village of Manfeng. "But the county government has put a lot of emphasis on it. The party secretary made a speech on TV. He said we should prevent this problem from arising, even though we haven't had it yet."

Officials from the Animal Disease Prevention Department of Gaoqun township, which administers villages in this region, have started visiting farmers every 10 days, offering free vaccines to anyone who wants them, Wang said.

Wang Zhenfeng, 65, a Manfeng farmer who said he has learned something about caring for animals during his many years in the business, took the officials up on their offer. He said he got free vaccine and personally injected all 10 of his chickens Thursday.

"I'm not afraid of that disease," he said, drawing water from a well fed by a hot spring. "The government is looking out for us."


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