By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 26, 2006
CAIRO, Feb. 25 -- Of all the panicky ways that people worldwide have sought protection from bird flu, perhaps the most striking took root among Egyptians last week. Via e-mail and through advice dispensed on crowded city streets, word went out: Don't drink the water.
Farmers, including the rooftop poultry breeders that are a Cairo fixture, had begun to dump stricken, dead chickens into the Nile River, the source of drinking water for millions of Egyptians, newspapers and satellite television reported. Taps were suddenly turned off and people rushed to stores to buy bottled water.
"I never saw anything like it," said Emad Abu Fouad, a grocer in the Bab al-Zuweila district. "People bought whole cases." No matter that the government had assured everyone that purification chemicals in public water supplies would kill the H5N1 virus that infects birds and, scientists fear, could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted among humans.
On Saturday, Abu Fouad put up a sign at his shop: "No Water," it read. "My supplier says he can't get more until Monday," he said.
People from East Asia to Western Europe have also reacted with alarm to the arrival of bird flu in recent months. In Western Europe, poultry sales plummeted after the virus was found in migrating fowl. But in Egypt, mistrust of official information leads to an especially emotional response. "There is little transparency in our society, and whatever information is given is likely to be false. It will take a long time for people to believe the government," Magdi Mehanna, a journalist, wrote in the independent al-Masry al-Yom newspaper.
No people have come down with the flu, Egyptian officials say, but as in other countries where the virus arrived in birds, the spread of H5N1 immediately depressed the chicken market. In Egypt, 750,000 people work in large-scale poultry breeding. As sales have plummeted, layoffs are approaching 30 percent, officials say. About 800 million chickens are consumed annually in Egypt, and the industry is losing $1.7 million a day, the government-owned al-Akhbar newspaper reported.
The price of chicken in Cairo has dropped from about $1.20 a pound to 80 cents since Feb. 17, when the first reports of bird flu surfaced. High-end supermarkets have emptied their poultry departments. A portrait of Colonel Sanders looks down on an empty KFC restaurant on busy Tahrir Square.
At Zezo, a late-night outdoor restaurant, customers passed up chicken sandwiches, ordering cheese and sausage or meat grilled on a spit, waiters said. Asked whether he would order chicken, one customer responded by flapping his arms, closing his eyes and pretending to die.
Infected migratory birds and chickens have been found in 14 of the country's 26 provinces. The government has banned the transport of birds among provinces and exterminated infected flocks at big farms. It also closed Cairo's Giza Zoo to check on its exotic bird collection, and veterinarians have killed more than 500 ducks, turkeys, geese and egrets.
An informal survey of three downtown Cairo pharmacies showed that none carried Tamiflu, the much-publicized anti-influenza medicine. In any case, it's not clear that the bulk of the city's impoverished population could afford the drug. Experts have warned that a crowded city like Cairo is especially vulnerable to a pandemic.
"Tamiflu's an expensive drug, and it must be taken daily," said Ahmed al-Minawi, a physician and Cairo University professor. "Currently, there's no other method of treatment. The potential for disaster in Cairo, with a population of 17 million, is greater than in other cities."
Despite recurring bouts of bird flu in other parts of the world, some Egyptians expressed hope that it would simply disappear. "We might be lucky," said Usama Raslan, who heads the microbiology and infection control department of Ain Shams University. "Egypt is a warm country, and migratory birds do not stop here for long."