Vietnam might have contained the fatal bird-flu outbreak that raged in the late 2000s, but it is still struggling with new cases of the disease that have puzzled experts.
Since January, bird-flu outbreaks have occurred in 14 provinces. About 65,000 chickens and ducks have died or been culled. Authorities have confirmed four human cases, of which two have been fatal.
It is a long way from the peak in 2003 to 2009 when the virus infected millions of fowl and killed 57 people — making Vietnam the second-worst-hit country after Indonesia, according to the WHO.
Last year, the country reported no new human cases, but the virus was still there, less threatening, but not eradicated.
“Bird flu has a harmful impact on agriculture, on people’s lives, with the appearance of weaker strains,” said the director of the animal health department at the agriculture ministry, Hoang Van Nam.
Outbreaks happen nationwide, he said, adding this was because of a mix of “the family structure of farming, a lack of information, and gaps in vaccination and farm control programs.”
Concerns about avian influenza have risen in the region with China, Cambodia and Indonesia all reporting deaths from the H5N1 strain of the virus this year.
However, traders at Hanoi’s Ha Vi market, where between 80 and 100 tonnes of live birds are sold every day, say they are not concerned.
“Who said there is a bird flu epidemic here? This doesn’t interest me. They exaggerate these things. I know only that all my chickens are in good health,” market vendor Do Thi Thanh Hoa said.
She said neither she nor her colleagues had to provide certificates of origin or vaccination for the birds they sell.
“Since the market opened, no one has been infected with H5N1. In this market, even when there is a ban, we still buy chickens and eat meat. Everyone is fine,” said Dao Thi Ngoc, another farmer. “The TV keeps talking about H5N1. Where is it happening?”
State TV regularly runs reports on the dangers of transporting poultry that has not been vaccinated, warning of the risks of buying birds smuggled in from China.
However, in a country where humans and fowl live side by side and where small, family-owned units dominate poultry production, it is almost impossible to monitor every bird slaughtered and sold.
“There are too many small farms. You can’t control all the cullings. Sometimes, hygiene standards are neglected or abandoned,” said Can Xuan Binh, director of animal health services in Hanoi.
As it does every year, the government has been trying to promote better disinfection of contaminated farms, vaccination programs and mass culls to keep a lid on H5N1 outbreaks.
However, despite such efforts, officials have struggled to control the transportation and sale of live birds — one of the key drivers of the spread of the disease.
To add to their problems, experts have identified new strains of the virus in certain Vietnamese provinces that are proving resistant to the usual vaccine.
“The vaccine is no longer effective. The capacity for protection is henceforth limited,” said Hoang Van Nam, adding that up to 100 million doses of a new vaccine will have to be imported from China.
Some experts blame Vietnam’s lingering H5N1 problem on political incoherence that, they say, undermines overall efforts to bring the crisis under control.