Indonesians Love Chicken, Bird Flu Scare or Not

Lunchtime chicken lovers cram the tables at the Ayam Goreng Suharti restaurant in Jakarta. Indonesians have surmised it is tough to catch bird flu.
Lunchtime chicken lovers cram the tables at the Ayam Goreng Suharti restaurant in Jakarta. Indonesians have surmised it is tough to catch bird flu. (By Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 30, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Here at the heart of the epidemic, where bird flu continues to rip through poultry flocks and more people now succumb to the virus than anyplace else on Earth, the lunchtime crowd at the Ayam Goreng Suharti restaurant can't get enough of the chicken.

The ravenous and the merely peckish cram nearly every one of the two dozen tables. They hunch over their plates, tearing off chunks of the succulent meat with their hands, licking their greasy fingers. While international health experts continue to sound the alarm about the prospect of pandemic and U.S. officials warn ominously that the disease could appear in American birds by fall, the overriding concerns at this Jakarta eatery turn on whether to order the chicken fried or grilled, with chili or spices; to have half a bird or to splurge on a whole one.

Indonesians have learned after two years to live with bird flu. Their now-sober response offers a lesson in levelheadedness to those abroad who are panicked or might soon be.

The initial scare over the mysterious new ailment faded in Indonesia as deaths became routine -- an average of almost one a week now. The virus proved exceptionally hard to catch, even for those who work closely with birds. Restaurants and butchers reported a recovery in their sales, and voracious Jakartans continue to crowd into food stalls along the roadsides, sheltered from the sun and exhaust fumes by large tarps adorned with cartoon chickens cheerfully advertising the house specialty.

"The bird flu cases don't affect us," said Elitha Tambunan, 38, nudging aside her plate, now bare but for a pile of stripped bones. "We're assured the chicken here is of the highest quality. It's a matter of trust."

Despite a tropical downpour hammering the roof and flooding the parking lot, Tambunan had ventured across the capital with two fellow office workers for a leisurely lunch at Ayam Goreng Suharti, part of a popular national chain. By the end of the day, the restaurant would go through about 300 chickens, all butchered on the premises. A pair of letters from animal health officials taped to the front door attested to their health.

Tri Warsono, 39, a stocky man with a long, slender mustache, was picking at the last scraps with his fingertips. "I'm not worried. I don't come here that often, but I eat chicken almost every day at my house," he said, dipping his fingers in a small water bowl to clean them. "Chicken is always on the menu in an Indonesian home."

Since avian influenza was first confirmed in Indonesian poultry at the start of 2004, the disease has struck flocks in two-thirds of the country's provinces, killing millions of birds. Government efforts to contain the outbreak have stumbled, with agriculture officials now acknowledging they cannot afford to pay for a national poultry vaccination program initially scheduled to begin next month.

The virus is also taking a mounting human toll. At least 32 Indonesians have contracted the disease since the initial human infection was confirmed in the middle of last year, and two-thirds have died. Though Vietnam still ranks first in overall cases, the disease has this year turned deadlier in Indonesia than at anywhere else. Yet the total number remains trifling.

"People here are coming to realize that most of us are not at great risk of getting the virus," said Steven Bjorge of the World Health Organization's office in Jakarta. "People are figuring out that on a day-to-day basis, this is not a real threat."

In Europe, where the virus was confirmed in wild birds across the continent this year, the consumption of chicken and eggs immediately tumbled. The discovery of a single dead swan infected with bird flu in Scotland this month sent Britain into a tizzy. The British media went on a war footing and callers flooded animal health hotlines with suspected sightings of sick birds, a likely preview of the American response should migratory fowl carry the disease to the West Coast as predicted.

Panic has also swept Egypt, where people responded by turning off their tap water after television stations broadcast news that infected carcasses were being dumped by farmers into the Nile River. In India, a farmers group reported this month that seven peasants had committed suicide after the disease destroyed their livelihoods.

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