Thailand - Bird Flu Vaccination Debate Offers Lessons

Date of publication : 7/30/2004
Source : Inter Press Service
A debate unfolding in Thailand over the merits of vaccinating poultry to save them from the lethal avian influenza virus may offer lessons to Asian countries with an eye towards the inoculation. Driving it forward is Thailand's poultry sector, which is increasingly worried at the mixed messages coming from the government about vaccinating poultry. ''We fear that people will stop eating chickens if they know the poultry has been vaccinated,'' Chaweewan Kampha, president of the Poultry Farmers Association, said in an interview with IPS It is a dangerous policy to endorse until the government knows ''the full impact of what happens with vaccinating poultry,'' she added. ''This also means the impact on chicken exports.'' Her worries come in the wake of this South-east Asian country having 21 of its 76 provinces infected with a new outbreak of bird flu since the start of this month. But for the moment, Bangkok has a message aimed at pacifying the poultry industry sector. ''The prime minister says that Thailand will not use vaccination at this moment,'' Yukol Limlathong, director general of the department of livestock development, told reporters on Friday. ''But we will decide within the next two months what our options will be and what guidelines to follow,'' he added. It means that the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has not abandoned efforts announced in mid-July for the country's researchers to begin exploring the vaccine programme best suited for the country. And it is such a wait-and-see approach of the government that worries the likes of Chaweewan, since major importers of Thai chicken such as the European Union have announced it would not purchase inoculated chicken products. Thailand is the fourth largest poultry exporter in the world, with earnings last year amounting to 1.2 billion U.S. dollars. And the outbreak of bird flu early this year, which hit two thirds of the country's 76 provinces, has left the poultry sector reeling. That bout of avian flu also killed seven Thais. Those deaths, along with the 15 fatalities in Vietnam due to the disease, raised worries that the world could soon be struck by an epidemic arising from the H5N1 strain of bird flu that could have devastating consequences. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that worries about consuming vaccinated chicken products are misplaced. ''It is not dangerous to eat chickens that have been vaccinated as long as they are cooked properly,'' Mary Elizabeth Miranda, public health veterinarian at the WHO's Western Pacific division, told IPS. According to the U.N. health body's food safety guidelines, chicken meat cooked to a minimum temperature of 70 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes is safe for eating. ''The risk still is direct contact of people with infected birds or clinically infected birds,'' added Miranda. And on Friday, at the end of a three-day regional meeting on bird flu, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reiterated the challenges ahead if vaccinating poultry is to be embraced as an option in Asia. The FAO recognises that vaccination ''is an option'' for countries grappling with bird flu to consider, He Changchui, head of the FAO's Asia-Pacific office, said at the end of the meeting. But he asserted that bio-security for chicken farms was a ''must'' if vaccination programmes were to achieve their desired results. ''Vaccination is not an easy decision,'' he said, adding that the U.N. food agency would lay down a blueprint for countries, keen on an inoculation programme, to follow. An Australian animal health expert also echoed that cautious view - given that a vaccination programme is far from a ''permanent solutions'' due to many drawbacks. ''A vaccination programme can only be administered properly with the correct bio-security measures,'' John Edwards, dean of the school of Veterinary and biomedical science at the Western Australia-based Murdoch University, told IPS. That means ensuring the chickens are contained within an environment free of any exposure to the virus before inoculating them, he added. ''There is no common vaccination programme that can be implemented either,'' he explained. ''It will have to vary depending on the size of a country and the size of the poultry industry sector.'' The interest in vaccination as an option to curb bird flu gained momentum during this week's FAO meeting, when participants from 11 Asian countries discussed its merits and drawbacks. Among the drawbacks was the danger a chicken population in a country faced if few birds are missed during the vaccination programme, thereby being open to infection and giving rise to another epidemic. Currently, Asian countries like Indonesia and China have been vaccinating poultry among the four countries in the region hit by the latest outburst of bird flu, -- the other two affected nations being Thailand and Vietnam. Early this year, when bird flu rampaged through eight Asian countries, 100 million chickens were either slaughtered or died due to the lethal virus. At the time, the Thai government opted to cull the infected birds and slapped a ban on vaccinating poultry.
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