Freedom from bird flu requires vigilance

GOING by the pronouncements of the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), the Philippines cannot yet claim that it is already free from the scourge that is avian influenza (AI) or bird flu. In fact, the countdown for the prescribed 90-day observation period required by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) before a country or region can claim that it is already free from bird flu has not even begun. Under OIE rules, the 90-day observation period will only begin right after the last infected farm has been cleaned and disinfected.

According to an official of the BAI, poultry growers in affected areas in Pampanga and Nueva Ecija have yet to complete the cleaning and disinfection process. An official of the BAI estimated that it would take five more days to clean and disinfect all affected poultry farms. The entire process in managing the outbreak of bird flu prescribed in the government’s manual would require a minimum of 75 days.

The first outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the Philippines has certainly brought a lot of costly lessons. The poultry industry in Central Luzon nearly collapsed because of the significant drop in demand for chicken, following the government’s confirmation that it was HPAI that struck poultry farms in the region. Firms exporting chicken had to put their shipments on hold, and it remains unclear when they would be able to again supply poultry products to foreign buyers. Countries that have banned poultry products from the Philippines would usually await the OIE’s confirmation before they lift restrictions.

The government had to compensate poultry growers in bird flu-hit areas and spend for the culling of fowls. Poultry growers received P80 for each broiler, commercial layer, quail and duck culled. Consumers were also affected as they stayed away from chicken and opted for more expensive sources of protein.

Fortunately, the BAI said there are no new outbreaks of AI in the affected provinces and nearby areas. Keeping the virus at bay requires close cooperation between the government and poultry growers. Regular dialogues between the Department of Agriculture and the private sector would pave the way for the implementation of proactive measures to ensure that there will be no new outbreaks of bird flu.

Poultry growers and egg producers earlier made a pitch for “fair compensation”, one that is based on the fair market value of their flock. They said the government can follow the example of South Korea, which pegs the compensation on fair market value. Egg producers belonging to the Philippine Egg Board Association (Peba) and poultry growers from the United Broiler Raisers Association (Ubra) said the government can consider using production cost as basis for computing farmers’ compensation.

Peba and Ubra said the offer of fair compensation would encourage poultry growers to immediately report suspicious bird deaths in their farms. Early reporting is key to managing bird-flu outbreaks. Poultry growers and egg producers said fair compensation, not regulation, would encourage early reporting. The government should consider this suggestion and find a way to make it possible. This could be less costly than regularly inspecting poultry farms.