Every once in awhile, the headlines will report another human death from bird flu.

This week, a small child in Egypt is being treated in hospital, making her the 58th case in that country since 2005.

Birdflu, of course, is a smouldering time bomb: so far, only isolated cases of animal to human infections, but so far only one or two possible human human cases. Once a human to human spread starts, the danger is a world wide epidemic.

Usually when cases are reported, the news shows bird markets, where live or newly killed birds are being sold. And indeed, some of the birdflu cases are from sick chickens killed and sold in markets.

But there are also reports of huge culls of chickens where isolated chickens have been diagnosed. And in this, we see the problem.

From IRIN:

Assistant Health Minister Sayyed said poultry keepers were often reluctant to report suspected cases for fear that health officials would cull not only their birds but those of neighbouring families.

Egypt does not run a compensation scheme for farmers who lose poultry in a cull.

At least countries like Indonesia, India and Egypt are busy trying to monitor their flocks, but of course, this won’t stop bird flu from spreading in migratory birds, or causing outbreaks in isolated areas where surveillance is limited.
And of course with globalization, food, including poultry, is exported all over the place. And much of the poultry industry is monoculture.

A handful of corporations supply most of the breeding stock for all the world’s poultry. Indeed, as of 2000, more than 95% was provided by just four turkey breeding companies, five egg-laying chicken breeders, and five broiler breeder companies.1923 Soon, the industry predicts, there essentially may only be three poultry breeders in the entire world.

Most of the poultry one buys in Manila is raised in large poultry farms, where one day old chicks are bought from breeding farms, and then fed, and cared for until large enough to eat. At this point, you kill and prepare the chickens for market, and the company sends up a truck to pick them up for processing to sell. This is thepoultry farm we used to run (it is now rented to a local farmer).

From 6-11-2008 part one

These large poultry farms are located all over Asia, supplying cheap and high protein food for ordinary folks all over Asia.

Eng Ziyaee

Photo is Eng. Ziyaee inspecting some day old chicks at his breeder farm in Iran.

But in rural areas, often the poultry is bought from local farmers, who raise a couple dozen chickens for eggs or meat or to sell for extra cash.Because their farms are too isolated and lack decent roads, they can’t make a profit, so they tend to eat what they raise, or sell it at the local market.

In the smal towns, most people have a hen or two in the garden, not to mention that almost everyone has a few roosters tethered on a string in the backyard, raised and bred for cockfighting, the local sport of choice.

One reason that large poultry farms are found in our area is that we are near the main highway. The city had made a concrete road to the nearby village; so it meant only one km of dirt road for the trucks. Now it’s even better: The concrete road has extended to the bottom of the poultry farms.

But in most rural villages, raising chickens to export isn’t done, nor do they have access to fast growing chicks to raise. They merely raise the chicks descended from those their ancestors raised.

And so now we read that some of these indigenous chickens actually have a germ resistant to bird flu.

From WorldPoulty, from the Jakarta Post.

 At least 62% of chickens indigenous to Indonesia are resistant to bird flu, thanks to a “Mx” gene in their body, the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) revealed….Sri says that Indonesia’s varied population of indigenous chickens is a mine of information on the Mx gene and how resistant each breed of chicken is to bird flu. She went on to say that if there is a bird flu epidemic in a certain region, it is unwise to simply cull indigenous breeds, as we may lose crucial information on the Mx gene.

So the good news is that cross breeding with indigenous chickens could help stop the threat of bird flu in certain regions.

The bad news? Three things.

One, that culling chickens in areas near the infected poultry farms could wipe out the chickens with the resistant gene (who of course would still be alive).

On the other hand, it is these smaller farms (including back yard chickens and fighting cocks) which are the biggest threat to infecting local poultry:

Thailand’s poultry industry, for example, has already been hit hard with H5N1 bird flu. That’s because Thailand, as well as many other Asian countries, hosts a large number of backyard poultry farms where domestic birds can mingle with potentially infected wild birds…

Three: with the improvement of the economy, many farmers are leaving their small farms to work in the towns and cities, so there is a danger of losing the valuable genetically diverse chickens.

There are sites to save seed to save genetic diversity, and there are programs to encourage (i.e. pay) local farmers to continue to grow the old fashioned grains and vegetables to keep genetic diversity alive.

I know in Africa, when we imported “high yield” egg layers into our area to improve local nutrition, we used a chicken that was cross bred with indigenous chickens that had resistance to local disease.

So I presume such research is going on in the poultry industry.

In the meanwhile, should you only use local chickens, or raise them yourself?

Well, even if you live in NYCity, remember that the chicken on your roof could catch bird flu from a migrating bird, or even from your neighbor’s exotic parrot that was illegally smuggled into the US…

As for those of us in the Philippines, so far we are free of bird flu.

We only have to worry about ebola Reston infected pigs, Dengue fever, bomb throwing Abu’s, and the coming typhoon season…


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. Her family ran a poultry farm until recently.


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