In Vietnam, a Gateway for Bird Flu

Poultry smugglers often use motorbikes to transport goods from China. Traffickers are able to evade patrols along Vietnam's mountainous border by using mobile lookouts who employ two-way radios to communicate threats.
Poultry smugglers often use motorbikes to transport goods from China. Traffickers are able to evade patrols along Vietnam's mountainous border by using mobile lookouts who employ two-way radios to communicate threats. (Richard Vogel - AP)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 30, 2006

DONG DANG, Vietnam -- The smugglers first appeared on the distant ridgeline and then, like ants, streamed down a dirt track carved from the lush, sculpted mountains that separate Vietnam from China. As the figures grew closer, their stooped posture became visible, backs heaving under bamboo cages crammed with live chickens.

On the road below, two young men identified by local officials as lookouts buzzed past on red dirt bikes, slowing down to check out a reporter and his government escorts who had stopped to watch. One man produced a two-way radio and started speaking urgently. Though his words were inaudible to the visitors, within moments the figures on the hillside melted into the brush.

These traffickers haul more than 1,000 contraband chickens a day into Lang Son, one of six Vietnamese provinces along the Chinese border, flouting a chicken import ban. In doing so, heath experts say, they have also repeatedly smuggled the highly lethal bird flu virus from its source in southern China into Vietnam, where the disease has taken a devastating toll on farm birds and killed at least 42 people since 2003.

As bird flu continues to spread across the Eastern Hemisphere, international health experts warn that illegal trade in poultry, poultry products and other birds is often the primary cause.

"Both between and within countries, commerce is an incredibly important factor," said Juan Lubroth, chief of infectious animal disease for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "We try to press with governments that it has to be controlled or managed better. But like trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs, with poultry it's not any easier."

The virus has already ravaged farm birds and wildfowl in more than 50 countries. At least 230 human cases have been recorded, and more than half have been fatal. Health officials fear that a new form of the virus that can jump easily from person to person will develop, bringing on a global epidemic among humans.

Vietnamese veterinary officials disclosed in April that they had found bird flu in a sample taken from smuggled chickens confiscated in Lang Son during a bust on the border. Days later, officials in the remote, neighboring province of Cao Bang reported the virus in poultry samples taken from three farms on the Chinese border after dozens of chickens had started dying and smuggling was suspected. These two episodes were the first official cases of bird flu in Vietnam since December.

In May 2005, researchers had already found evidence that smuggling was bringing in the bug: They isolated a strain of the H5N1 virus that was new to Vietnam but similar to one common in Guangxi, just over the mountains from Lang Son.

Lang Son's jagged border with China runs for about 150 miles through angular, misty mountains with craggy cliffs that seem drawn from a stylized painting. The highest peak, which lends its name, Mau Son, to the local rice wine, rises nearly 4,500 feet. For centuries, the extended families straddling this border have navigated treacherous footpaths to run goods from one side to the other, in recent years including electronics, DVDs, exotic wildlife and all nature of clothes and shoes.

The bootleg poultry business turned lucrative two years ago after Vietnam started slaughtering about 50 million chickens to contain its bird flu epidemic. The resulting shortage of chicken meat, a prime source of protein for the Vietnamese, sent prices soaring on their side of the border.

Much of this trade takes place at night. But in the broad daylight of a recent afternoon, more than a dozen smugglers were descending a steep, dark earthen track outside the border village of Dong Dang. Even after the motorbike lookouts apparently sounded the alarm, more traffickers appeared over the ridge from China. Others were spotted walking down another, narrower path largely concealed by trees about 100 yards away.

The local officials warned that the smugglers could turn violent, attacking outsiders with stones or firearms. According to Vietnamese press reports, chicken smugglers in Lang Son have battled soldiers trying to intercept them. In one instance, five soldiers were injured by stones, and their car was destroyed.

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