Avian flu is once more upon us. Between December and January every year, winter birds migrate to the south and Taiwan is a major destination for these birds. If local poultry farms do not install netting and implement disease prevention and hygiene measures, birds that become infected with H5-type avian flu will infect others, as they are reared together, and the virus might spread rapidly to other poultry farms. An outbreak would cause considerable financial losses for poultry farmers.
Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that proper tests are carried out and quarantine measures are taken once infection is detected. If an actual avian flu outbreak occurs, all the birds in the farm need to be destroyed and neighboring farms notified of the need to sterilize their premises.
In Taiwan, viruses like these are an annual occurrence and, although the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine has set up a standard operating procedure for handling bird flu, local authorities around the country need to be reminded of the need to carry out prevention drills in advance. Otherwise, the government risks serious financial losses and even social disturbance should an outbreak occur.
There is also the risk that highly pathogenic strains of the avian flu virus, such as the H5N2 and H5N8 strains, might combine with human flu, and such virus mutations would be very dangerous — something that doctors and public health experts are very concerned about at the moment. Once transmitted from birds to pigs and even humans, the possibility of a pandemic that threatens human lives greatly increases.
Some academics and experts have criticized the central and local governments for keeping the current status of the epidemic under wraps, and worry that warnings and testing by governments at all levels are not as responsive as they should be. As a result of the government’s inefficiency, after one particular chicken farm in Pingtung County slaughtered more than 15,000 laying hens when H5N2 was detected on Jan. 9, the virus spread to 66 bird farms in seven cities and counties across the nation within just a few days, affecting not only chickens, but also ducks and geese.
Demand for poultry and eggs is also being hit. Many poultry farmers can expect to have a hard time this year, just as the Lunar New Year is approaching. Domestic consumers are likely to be very cautious about where they buy their poultry and eggs from. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control is still worried about the possibility of bird-to-human transmission.
Ever since Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) took office last month, the physician-turned-mayor has applied an “ECMO” (extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation) standard operating procedure to city affairs, and the efficiency with which he has gone about his job has not gone unnoticed. In the face of avian flu, which almost always hits the nation come winter, competent authorities from the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine to the Council of Agriculture should assist local governments in carrying out prevention drills according to standard operating procedure before winter arrives, and conduct random testing at large bird farms. Once the H5 virus is found, all birds at affected farms have to be slaughtered.
By following the standard operating procedure for handling avian flu, including regular sterilization at bird farms, prompt testing and the destruction of all poultry at affected farms, there will be no need for a cover-up. This will prevent a disaster and assuage the concerns of the public.
Yang Ping-shih is a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Bio-Resources and Agriculture.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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