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Vietnamese farmers worsen bird-flu threat by ignoring ban Death toll mounts as some bribe officials, smuggle ducks, pullets past checkpoints in Communist country, GEOFFREY YORK writes

Death toll mounts as some bribe officials, smuggle ducks, pullets past checkpoints in Communist country, GEOFFREY YORK writes

TAN AN, VIETNAM

eems like an idyllic pastoral scene; thousands of white ducks and fuzzy yellow ducklings, splashing peacefully in the water ponds of a farm in the Vietnamese countryside.

But behind this picturesque image lurks an ominous threat. Three months ago, Vietnam announced a strict ban on the raising of ducks, which are believed to be the primary reservoir of the bird-flu virus. Yet all of the 8,200 ducks on this farm were born after the ban.

The farm is hardly a secret. The ducks are clearly visible from the nearest road, but the owner is not worried by the possibility of government inspectors.

Some Vietnamese suspect that he simply bribed the inspectors to ignore the ducks.

Similar evidence of corruption and illegality can be easily spotted in Vietnam's biggest city, Ho Chi Minh City. Live poultry sales have been prohibited in the city since February, yet a visit to a traditional poultry market soon reveals a shop where a man is carrying 20 chickens in baskets on his motorcycle. The man flees when a journalist arrives, but nearby vendors confirm the shop is still routinely selling live chickens, despite the ban.

Vietnam's inability to enforce its own health rules helps explain why the bird-flu threat is so persistent. Health experts fear that the bird-flu outbreak in Southeastern Asia could trigger a human pandemic and a global health disaster with millions of human deaths. Even the strict Communist regime that has ruled Vietnam with an iron fist for 30 years has been unable to stamp out the poultry practices that nurture the bird-flu virus.

Vietnam is one of the epicentres of the bird-flu outbreak. Of the 52 confirmed human deaths from bird flu since the beginning of last year, 36 have occurred in Vietnam, along with most of the human infections. Some analysts believe that Vietnam's high death toll is a result of its reporting procedures, which are believed to be more stringent than poorer Asian countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar. But even in Vietnam, officials have acknowledged that its farmers and rural dwellers are often unaware of the bird-flu epidemic and how to deal with it.

"In many places, the epidemic surveillance network is non-existent," vice-minister of health Tran Chi Liem told an official newspaper recently.

Even after one-third of Vietnam's poultry was slaughtered in a massive culling operation last year, the disease is believed to be entrenched in many pockets of the country. About 70 per cent of Vietnam's poorest families have traditionally raised chickens.

While the government has set up checkpoints and quarantine stations on main highways, farmers have found ways to smuggle their birds past the checkpoints.

The countryside around Tan An, a city in Long An province in the Mekong Delta, has been one of the hardest hit by the epidemic. This is one of Vietnam's biggest poultry-producing regions, but 70 to 80 per cent of all ducks in the delta are believed to be infected with the bird-flu virus, and 85 per cent of the province's chickens were culled last year.

It's easy to understand why the hard-hit farmers of Long An province might be tempted to break the rules. Their financial losses from the bird-flu epidemic have been staggering, and the compensation from the government has been minimal.

Pham Van An, a 52-year-old farmer, watched officials slaughter 25,000 of his chickens last fall -- almost all of his back yard poultry operation.

The official compensation was less than one-quarter of the market value of the birds, leaving him with a loss of about $35,000 (U.S.) -- a huge sum in this developing country.

After the cull, he paid $10,000 to a broker to import 4,000 healthy chickens from Thailand, but the government refused to give him a permit, leaving him with further losses and heavy debts.

"I'm feeling a lot of stress," he said. "I don't know how I will repay my debts. I'm very worried that I could lose my farm. The government told me to take some training and switch to another job, but I don't know how to do anything else. My family has always raised chickens and ducks."

Defiance and resistance among the poultry farmers is already mounting.

One farmer, 47-year-old Phuoc Thu, says she has lost $65,000 because her egg sales were banned for the past five months. The government wanted to slaughter her 30,000 chickens, but she refused, insisting they were not infected. Eventually, she was allowed to keep her chickens.

"I'm angry about it," she said. "They came to my farm every day, saying that I had to kill them, even though I knew they didn't have the virus."

The ban on live chicken sales has also severely damaged Ho Chi Minh City's restaurant trade, creating further pressure on businesses to find ways to bypass the ban.

One owner of a small restaurant estimates that 90 per cent of the shops specializing in pho ga -- Vietnam's famous chicken noodle soup -- have closed.

He lost 70 per cent of his revenue for several months, but managed to survive by finding a supply of clean, certified chicken.

Now he advertises his shop with a large red sign.

"Chickens with Certificates," the sign reads. "Customer, don't worry."

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