FIFTY-five weeks ago, poultry farm owner Librada Sese celebrated life; today she can only recall death as thousands of chickens, some she raised, were killed on orders of government.
She had a premonition on July 24, 2017, but a friend’s birthday peck on her cheeks brought her back to the bustle of activity inside her one-story house in San Carlos, San Luis, Pampanga. The distant cackles and cock-a-doodle-do’s from layers inside buildings adjacent to her house were brushed aside by laughter and chatter of guests.
It was festive as Sese, “Nanay Librada” to many, was celebrating 78 years of her life on this planet. Another reason to be happy that day: 2017 was turning out to be a good year for her layer farm.
For the first two quarters, demand for table eggs was growing, which pushed farm-gate prices to rise to unprecedented level.
It was a year Sese, a layer raiser for more than four decades, envisioned to be “the year.”
“I was going to pay my debts and save more money for myself,” she told the BusinessMirror.
The good fortune brought to Sese’s life by the first six months of 2017 allowed her to go with her usual birthday routine: set a feast and invite all the people from the barrio.
Gifts arrived. Greetings were received. But an unusual visitor also reached her: rumors of a plague creeping into their small town, about 60 kilometers from the nation’s capital.
“Some of my visitors told me [that day that] the flocks of our neighbors have died,” she recalled. She was speechless.
Year of the Rooster
SESE steeled herself as her farmhand brought her the news she dreaded to hear.
She was roused from sleep near dawn the day after turning 78 when her caretaker told her, “Ima, may namatay na po roon sa Building 1,” Sese, who has a dozen poultry houses, said. “200 na po.” [Mother, about 200 birds have died in Building 1.]
She ordered the farm worker to give medicines to her layers, hoping it was just a normal illness that’s affected the farm.
By noon the same day, another 500 birds were dead.
When she asked how many chickens could die, her farm worker became silent. She got an answer 17 days after she turned 78.
Sese’s poultry farm of 60,000 head of layers was declared on August 11, 2017, as the ground zero of the country’s first confirmed avian influenza (AI) case.
The year that Nanay Librada thought would be one of the best years of her business turned out to be the worst.
She lost more than P30 million with the eradication of her flock, with majority being culled by government officials to contain the virus.
Coincidentally, 2017 was the Year of the Fire Rooster—the same year that bird flu hit Central Luzon.
Harbinger of death
THE ringing of a phone jolted the attention of Roy M. Abaya from the Excel file he had been tweaking since arriving at his office at 8 a.m. of August 10, 2017.
Abaya, Regional Field Office 3 chief for the Department of Agriculture (DA), was in his office in San Fernando, Pampanga, preparing his region’s budget for 2018 when he received an unusual call. It was from his boss.
“The Secretary told me that we have to announce this and then prepare immediately,” Abaya, who was four months into his work as regional director, told the BusinessMirror.
About 68 kilometers away, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol replaced the receiver on his phone at his office in Quezon City after talking to Abaya.
“Fear was overwhelming,” he told the BusinessMirror of his experience during the bird-flu outbreak last year.
“It was just an overstated poultry disease,” the DA chief pointed out. “Admittedly, it actually caused deaths in other countries but the feared fatal effect of the disease was not present in the Philippine experience.”
Piñol did doubt it at first, as what was expected from a former journalist. But when the laboratory results came out, Piñol knew it was a monster that the government must take down.
“I was shocked,” he said. “The first thing I did was to think like a farmer. I knew right there and then we have to cull the birds so as to contain the virus.”
A WEEK prior to Piñol’s call, Abaya already knew that some poultry farms in Barangay San Carlos have already tested positive from AI.
“It was hard for me to believe it because we have been bird flu-free for so long. There have been false alarms before, yes,” Abaya told the BusinessMirror.
“But when we sent the samples to the BAI [Bureau of Animal Industry] laboratory and [they] confirmed it was AI—I was shocked. It was the most valuable thing we have been holding on for so long for our poultry products: that we are bird flu-free,” he added.
Two things immediately crossed Abaya’s mind that time: “What would be the effect of this on our poultry supply and how are we going to contain this?”
“We really did not know what to do at first. Even me; I had to study the [Avian Influenza Protection Program] AIPP,” he said.
“So the fear over how to respond immediately is really there. And it was aggravated [by the fact] that a lot of our stakeholders are already complaining,” added Abaya, who has been in the DA for more than three decades.
SINCE assuming the helm as DA regional director for Central Luzon in March, Abaya said he never received any reports of unusual mortality among poultry flocks—not until end-July of 2017.
“The poultry owners had the initiative to treat their problem. They did not want to expose [to outsiders] that their flock have health problems because they wanted to protect their businesses,” Abaya told the BusinessMirror. “But when they [were unable] to handle the deaths and they were already alarmed about the matter, that was the [only] time they informed government officials.”
An engineer by profession, Abaya admitted that time he also didn’t know the possible extent of damage a bird-flu virus could bring.
“When our veterinarians told me that within a day it can kill thousands of birds, then I was really afraid,” he said. “And when we saw on the ground what’s happening it was really extreme. They [would] report to us today, and then tomorrow all their flocks would be wiped out.”
Even after the DA declared Barangay San Carlos ground zero for bird flu, poultry raisers hesitated to cooperate with the government. They also had difficulty accepting the fact their flock would be culled no matter what.
“They only opened up when the Secretary announced there will be compensation for the chickens culled,” Abaya said. “When the Secretary also announced that there will be no movement of products within the 7-kilometer radius, then the poultry raisers reached out to us to cull their flock to not incur more losses.”
In its official report to the Office International des Epizooties (OIE or World Organization for Animal Health), the DA culled a total of 208,471 birds in the San Luis outbreak. However, DA-RFO 3 estimates show that total birds culled in the area reached 500,000 head, including those surrendered outside the 1-kilometer quarantine area.
Official tally submitted by the DA to the OIE showed that it culled nearly 200,000 birds in the Nueva Ecija AI-affected poultry farms. DA-RFO 3 estimates that total birds reached about 400,000 head, bringing the total number of poultry animals culled in the country to 900,000 head at least.
During the DA’s budget hearing in Congress, Piñol disclosed that they gave more than P60 million worth of indemnification to poultry farmers affected by AI in Central Luzon.
Art of culling
THE DA faced a lot of challenges given that this was the first confirmed bird-flu outbreak of the country. One major challenge was choosing the most efficient procedure of culling.
“We were not accustomed [to] using personal protective equipment; it was very huge and very hot inside. We thought that it was a piece of cake,” Abaya said. “But just two hours into the gear you are already exhausted.”
At first, the culling teams of the government were manually dislocating the spinal cord of the birds. However, this was tedious and exhaustive.
The teams shifted to carbon dioxide suffocation to fast-track the culling procedures. The animals were placed in carbon dioxide-filled black bags to ensure loss of consciousness.
Abaya said they imposed two shifts for the culling of birds: 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. This meant it took four hours a day to kill the birds.
“Work got easier when the military helped us and when poultry raisers were already volunteering for the culling of their flock in exchange of the indemnification,” he said.
Another problem faced by the government’s veterinarian was basic: where to bury the culled chickens.
“It was rainy season that time. The water table was so low. When you bury the culled chickens, their corpses would float a few seconds after,” Abaya explained.
“And that is a not allowed under our manual because water contamination could be a channel to spread the virus further.”
Due to these above-mentioned challenges, it took the DA-BAI two weeks to totally depopulate the San Luis farms.
THE National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) accused the DA of lacking an effective communication plan and risk communication specialists, resulting in miscommunication of message during the bird-flu outbreak.
In its draft policy brief, the NRCP recommended the DA should communicate better during times of disaster or disease outbreaks.
The NRCP is an attached agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) mandated by law “to provide advice on problems and issues of national interest.”
The NRCP proposed that the DA should create an “effective communication plan specific for outbreak communications” to be able to send its message clearly to the public.
“Include in the communication plan the capacity building and training of focal persons in the [local government units] to properly communicate the risks at the local level to address the problem of non- and under-reporting of AI incidences,” the NRCP said in the draft policy brief, a copy of which was obtained by the BusinessMirror.
The NRCP also recommended that the DA should “have a pool of risk communication specialists who shall be responsible for disseminating information on outbreaks for public consumption to minimize mishandling of information and media sensationalism.”
The NRCP also recommended that the DA-BAI should include “traded game cocks and smuggled chicken from other countries” in its surveillance coverage.
Nuggets of knowledge
FOR Elias Jose Inciong, president of United Broiler Raisers Association (Ubra), the “low-keyness” of the government during the disease outbreak speaks louder than verbal pronouncements.
For him, the government should just treat bird flu as a normal avian disease and eradicate it at the soonest possible time with the least public noise.
“For more effective handling of the situation, we recommend that the government keep it quiet unless there is really a necessity to announce it such as that it could harm human beings. Right now, based on our experience, the best thing to do is to keep it low,” Inciong told the BusinessMirror.
“In effect you still have a way to announce it through the OIE. But it doesn’t have to be a major production. There’s no need for press conferences or press releases,” Inciong added.
Piñol acknowledged the agency was beset with communication problems last year, which resulted in the unintended detrimental impact on broiler raisers.
To address this, Piñol said he would be the sole authority allowed to speak in behalf of the government on bird flu-related matters.
“There will be no more announcements to be made on issues involving animal health problems [from other officials] except the Secretary,” he said.
“We have learned our lesson in the last bird-flu outbreak wherein everybody talked about it—the mayors, the health department, other government officials, which scared people and affected the market,” he added.
THE highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) subtype H5N6 discovered in San Carlos is a lethal one, according to the OIE.
In fact, it is described as a novel strain as it could wipe out poultry flocks in a blink of an eye.
Worse, it has the tendency to be transmitted to human beings, such as the strain that affected 19 people in the People’s Republic of China.
OIE Deputy Director General Matthew Stone told the BusinessMirror it is “crucial” for countries to have effective biosecurity measures to ensure that AI will not be reactivated.
Biosecurity measures, according to Stone, do not only cover the poultry-producing farms, but the whole value chain, including the way poultry products reach the market.
“For example, the entry and exit procedures for trucks and farm workers in poultry farms are vital to ensure no avian disease virus is brought inside and outside the premises.”
Furthermore, Stone noted that the population of poultry houses is an important aspect of biosecurity as overpopulation could lead to faster contamination.
“All these aspects are very, very, important for the poultry industry to think about,” Stone said in a phone interview from Paris.
All at risk
UNLIKE commercial-scale farms, small-scale farms are at risk from avian diseases due to lack of capital to invest in biosecurity measures according to Stone.
“That’s a big challenge for countries with diversified farming types in poultry. You have large multinational companies to small family-owned farms,” he said.
“And more often, these small ones have limited means and costs which makes it a bit challenging for them to have a strong level of biosecurity,” he added. “As a result, often, they are exposed to ongoing circulation of AI; therefore, zoonotic threats could occur.”
Stone pointed out that a strong cooperation between the government and the poultry industry is a must to ensure prevention of avian diseases, including AI.
“The idea of public-private partnership is extremely important,” he said. “The government needs an effective partner in the industry. It is also very important that authorities have a very good relationship with the industry.”
Stone said no country is immune to the risk of AI and that all countries must put in place a “good” level of biosecurity measures.
A key biosecurity measure, according to Stone, is an early warning system that immediately detects a possible threat of avian disease in a specific area.
Such system would allow government to impose additional biosecurity measures particularly during high-risk periods, according to him.
“For example, in many European countries right now, they direct that all poultry must be held indoors during high-risk period of AI,” he said. “It is quite a challenging measure for industries to adopt. But it is an effective one.”
THE Philippine government has yet to announce the probable cause of the bird-flu outbreak in San Carlos.
The DA has tapped the expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to trace back the bird-flu outbreak.
The BusinessMirror sought FAO Philippines’s comments but these had not been received as of the deadline for the story.
Nevertheless, officials have easily blamed migratory birds as the possible culprit for the entry of AI in the country. Various veterinarians and industry stakeholders oppose such argument. They said migratory birds have been in the country for decades now, but this is the first time there was a confirmed case of AI.
Officials also considered the possibility the AI virus entered the country through smuggled Peking ducks.
MOVING forward, Piñol disclosed to BusinessMirror more of the changes that will be undertaken in the government’s bible on AI: the AIPP Manual of Procedures.
First, the DA-BAI will now abolish the 1-kilometer quarantine area and 7-kilometer control area.
The stamping out or depopulation of flocks would now be farm-specific to avoid losses for unaffected poultry farms. At the same time, the government will intensify its surveillance for possible spread of the virus to nearby farms or areas.
The government will not hamper the movement of poultry and poultry products outside the AI-affected farms, according to Piñol.
He said the DA will also divide the country into three quarantine regions: Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao. This is unlike the 25 National Avian Influenza-Free poultry production zones indicated under the 2016 AIPP.
“With this, the OIE will not red-flag the whole country as affected by bird flu but only a certain region, for example, Luzon,” Piñol told the BusinessMirror. “It will not unduly affect other stakeholders located in the Visayas and Mindanao regions.”
AS for the issue of nonreporting by raisers of unusual mortality among flocks, Piñol said he hopes the DA’s new mobile phone application called “Farmhelp” would encourage them to do so.
One way of reporting on their problems, according to Piñol, is by sending photos of their flocks through Farmhelp.
The app was acquired by DA at a bid price of “a little less than P30 million,” the DA chief said. The DA will commence a nationwide information campaign on Farmhelp as well as distribution of “low-cost” smart phones starting September.
“Now it is up to them if they will report or not, given the available options. And if they still do not report unusual mortality, then it may cost them more,” Piñol said. “Despite our farm-specific protocol, the virus could still affect their neighbors which would put at risk their area’s livelihood anew.”
Augusto S. Baluyut Jr., Pampanga Provincial Veterinarian, said the government is also considering adopting defoaming as a procedure to cull chickens.
Defoaming, a practice by the United States in culling birds, uses fire-extinguisher-like sprayers containing foam agents that would suffocate the flock.
EDUARDO L. Lapuz Jr. told the BusinessMirror the DA-RFO 3 has spent P2 million this year to buy sufficient laboratory test kits.
“We bought a lot of test kits so that we will have readily available materials. We can avoid the depletion of stocks like what happened during the outbreak last year,” added Lapuz, DA-RFO 3 Regulatory Division Chief.
Furthermore, Abaya said the DA-RFO 3 has purchased two trucks mounted with power sprayers to disinfect poultry farms. The regional office has already awarded contracts for the power sprayers and delivery is expected within the month, he added.
Lapuz said they allocated a budget of P3 million per unit but were able to purchase the two trucks at a “lower” price. He did not disclose how much was the bid price.
Furthermore, Abaya said they are planning to purchase two wall-mounted disinfectants to be put at entry points of San Luis’s poultry farms this year.
“So when trucks pass by the area they will be disinfected,” he said. “It will be put in entry points of San Luis.”
LAPUZ said the savings of the DA-RFO 3 from the procurement of the test kits and power sprayers will be used to purchase the wall-mounted disinfectants.
“We already found a supplier, which proposed a cost of P1.5 million per unit,” he said. “We are eyeing to buy four units, if not five, based on our savings.”
Lapuz added the DA-RFO 3 has also a budgetary allocation for laboratory supplies next year of about P2 million, which is way higher compared to the measly funding they received prior to the bird-flu outbreak.
Piñol said they will procure more power sprayers if the equipment is proven effective.
Furthermore, the DA will establish AI focal groups nationwide to not only monitor poultry farms but assist farmers in disinfecting their respective areas.
“After harvesting their flocks, the farmers could request the DA to disinfect their farms. At the same time it would allow our veterinarians to monitor the areas for possible virus,” he said.
“This would also allow us to inspect if the farms are conforming to biosecurity measures. The disinfection service of the government would be free for all poultry raisers,” he added.
FIVE words by Abaya will continue to haunt Sese and poultry raisers: “It will always be there.”
“It is just a matter [of time when] the virus will be reactivated or not,” he told the BusinessMirror. “We just really have to intensify our prevention measures particularly in terms of biosecurity.”
This is a sentiment that Piñol shares.
“The risk will always be there. The danger of the disease of coming back will always be there.”
The Agriculture Chief, nonetheless, is confident the government is ready if a bird-flu outbreak returns.
“We have seen the monster face to face. And we did not blink,” he said. “If it comes back, we will be ready. We would no longer be scared as before.”
These words, however, may have yet to soothe Sese’s nerves.
Thirty-two weeks ago, Sese secured a government clearance to restock. She hesitated.
“The fear is always there,” she said.
“We wanted to start again. But the question was, how? And where am I going to get my capital?”
Sese used the P2 million she received from the government indemnification program to purchase 6,000 day-old-chicks (DOCs) in January.
“Hindi ko naisip [na umalis sa poultry business] dahil wala akong ibang tatakbuhan,” Sese said. “May edad na ako at ayaw ko nang mag-isip ng iba pa [I never considered opting out of the poultry business because where will I go? I am already old and I do not want to think about of a lot of other things].”
Sese just stocked 12,000 DOCs in her poultry farm, which are expected to lay eggs by year-end.
She will settle at 18,000 head if the government will not provide any more support to them. In an interview with the BusinessMirror on August 10, Sese said she will not stop hoping for “the year” that mimicked the first half of 2017, before the tragedy began.
“Iniisip ko na lang na darating ’yung panahon na gaganda ulit ’yung kita,” she said under an indigo sky. “Sa una talaga mahirap, at sana mag-pick up sa mga susunod na buwan o taon [I always imagine that time will come when income would be better. I know it’s always difficult at first but surely sales will pick up in the coming months].”
Surely, it’s a hope she cannot be begrudged for holding on to.