The Council of Agriculture is incompetent.
After the council got caught hiding an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza last year, it turned to its golden formula: It pushed farmers into the front lines by playing the “business” card. That was the best means the council could think of to convince the public, fend off the media, explain itself to the Cabinet and fob off the Presidential Office — and it worked.
The council said the most important thing was to avoid any negative impact on farmers’ livelihoods which it achieved by calming the storm over the bird flu outbreak as quickly as possible. This pronouncement was enough to make people forget that council officials’ concealed of the influenza outbreak. “Concern for business” has become the best excuse for covering up infectious outbreaks.
If the purpose of concealing the bird flu outbreak was to look after farmers’ livelihoods, why is the council trying to cover things up again with this year’s rabies outbreak, even though it has had no impact on farming? The council appears to have little or no interest in public welfare. It is more concerned with covering things up. As for its response to the rabies outbreak, the more it flounders, the fishier it smells.
If the rabies experts’ committee that convened on July 16 had not confirmed that there was an outbreak, the council would certainly have continued to proudly proclaim Taiwan as one of just 10 rabies-free countries and if the virus were discovered, the council would have said it was brought in from another country.
If it were true that a place where no cases have been detected must be free of that disease, then would it not follow that places where no medical tests are done are all disease-free? By that logic, government departments could declare their country totally disease-free by simply not doing any tests!
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) only defines an area as rabies-free if convincing data is available for wildlife as well as dogs and cats. That is because about 90 percent of cases are found in wild animals, while dogs and cats only account for 3 percent to 5 percent.
Over the last 10 years, Taiwanese authorities have only tested stray dogs and cats for rabies — except for Kinmen County, where bats have also been tested. Data gathered in this way are not enough to decide that Taiwan is a rabies-free zone. This is typical of the way the council covers things up. It has no scientific basis, so it uses inflated figures to cover up the truth.
Apart from producing inflated figures, the council is even better at misinterpreting research. For example, when Victor Pang’s (龐飛) research group at the National Taiwan University School of Veterinary Medicine sent its test results to the council’s Animal Health Research Institute for checking, it had already done the whole series of tests recommended by the OIE and finished sequencing the virus’ genome. However, the institute intervened on the grounds that the test sample did not consist of fresh brain tissue.
On July 26, an Asian house shrew in Taitung County tested positive for rabies, but the next day Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine Director-General Chang Su-san (張淑賢), who is not an expert in disease control and testing, called a press conference and changed the official account. She said that the shrew might have had the genotype 3 lyssavirus, also known as the Mokola virus, and that the nature of the virus could not be known for certain until its genome had been sequenced.
This looks very much like a replay of the avian flu affair, with the bureau, which is an administrative department, once again interfering in the work of a test laboratory. Evidently the council is as good at covering things up as it is at bluffing.
After hearing the council’s convoluted reasoning, how can we work out the truth of the matter? Actually, it is quite simple:
First, we should ask who is meddling in the investigation. Who has been responsible for monitoring rabies in the nation for the past decade? Who insisted, for no apparent reason, that a test sample must consist of fresh brain tissue? Who told Chang that the shrew was infected with type 3 lyssavirus?
Second, we need to find out who provided the council’s top disease control department with bogus data so that Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) could not decide what step to take next which caused the public to panic and plunged disease control officers into dismay.
Third, the disease prevention teams that have been so elusive during the bird flu and rabies outbreaks need a thorough overhaul. When officials who are in charge of wild animals cannot recognize a ferret-badger and those in charge of poultry do not know what a chicken farm looks like, what else can we expect them to do but bluff their way through the task of disease control?
Kevin Lee is a documentary film director.
Translated by Julian Clegg