Duck Farming Spreads Bird Flu in Vietnam

The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 3:33 AM

VINH THUAN, Vietnam -- Even before the boat drifts into sight, all senses are alerted to its cargo _ a chorus of raucous quacking mixed with an unmistakable stench.

About 1,400 Pekin ducks waddle inside four long cages within the vessel that serves as a taxi for thousands of waterfowl ferried to feed on leftover grains in newly harvested rice fields across Vietnam's southern Mekong Delta. It's an age-old practice that has always benefited the area's duck farmers and crops. Now, it's been outlawed for helping fan bird flu across eight provinces in one month.

The government last week banned the movement of all ducks after the H5N1 virus resurfaced last month following a yearlong lull. Any birds caught in transit can be seized and destroyed, whether they're vaccinated or not.

"I've been roaming my ducks around for more than 30 years," says Ngo Hong Hanh, 57, standing barefoot on the riverbank near his boatload of noisy ducks. "I don't think I can abandon this practice because it is my main income."

Hanh loads his flock onto boats three or four times a year and travels to vacant fields littered with grains of rice left amid the dry stubble of recently cut stalks. For a small fee, the ducks forage a month and a half before going home, ridding the fields of unwanted pests and saving Hanh about $1,500 in feed costs.

This time, he is returning from Vinh Thuan district in Kien Giang province, about 12 miles from his village. Vinh Thuan has been inundated with visiting ducks in recent weeks _ more than 300,000 coming from miles around to be released into the freshly harvested paddies. Normally, the district is home to only about 19,000 waterfowl.

Bird flu typically flares during the winter months when temperatures drop. The H5N1 virus has recently surfaced in South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Nigeria, China and Hong Kong. It's continued to kill poultry and people in Indonesia, the world's hardest hit country with 62 deaths. It has also killed four humans since last month in Egypt.

Animal health officials in Vietnam saw the latest wave of bird flu begin ripping across the Delta last month, killing or forcing the slaughter of 40,000 birds, but they were helpless to stop it. They blame the flare-ups on unvaccinated birds and the mass arrival of free-range ducks. Vaccination helps to decrease the spread, but even that isn't foolproof because ducks must receive multiple shots each year to ensure immunity.

"If we can successfully prevent ducks from roaming from one place to another, we can stop the spread of the virus," says Dinh Cong Than, director of Kien Giang's provincial animal health department. "Our government policy is to change this practice, but I don't think you can do it overnight."

Authorities have set up road and water checkpoints to try to stop poultry from coming in from outside provinces. Four boatloads of about 5,400 ducks have been intercepted by night patrols in Vinh Thuan, but officials say it's not easy to scour the muddy spider web of canals and rivers that snake across the country's rice basket.

International experts say it might not be necessary to stop the Mekong practice that has worked so well for generations, as long as the ducks are closely monitored and vaccinated against the H5N1 virus.

"It's a nice little ecosystem, a good farming practice, but because of its risk with respect to (avian influenza), then it does have to be reviewed and it would be higher risk," says Dr. Jeff Gilbert, an animal health expert at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Hanoi.

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