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Duck raisers, cock breeders resist antiavian flu measures

Published on 4 April, 2006, Last updated at 01:51 GMT

4th Apr: MANILA - THE government’s Avian Influenza Protection Program (AIPP) says that should the lethal H5N1 bird-flu strain enter the country and infect a poultry farm, military and agriculture officials will cull all feathered animals within a 3-km radius to halt the spread of the virus.

These animals will include ducks, broilers, quail and, yes, even pampered fighting cocks.

But some observers are not too optimistic that such measures would be carried out effectively. As it is, Gil Nicolas, spokesman of the National Federation of Gamefowl Breeders (NFGB), predicts “strong resistance” to culling because of the breeders’ attachment to their game fowls.

Equally difficult, officials say, is banning duck raisers from grazing their fowls in wetlands frequented by migratory birds that are potential carriers of the avian-flu virus. The virus has developed a deadly strain that can pass the illness on to humans.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) is planning to ban outright the raising of ducks and other free-range poultry in wetlands, instead of disallowing this only from September to March. Any farmer who wants chickens and ducks to roam these areas would have to secure a permit from the DA’s regional field unit and local government officials.

Authorities are also poised to beef up the control measures already contained in the AIPP, which was formulated in 2005 by the government-led National Avian Influenza Task Force (NAITF).

But Carolyn Benigno, animal health officer for Asia and the Pacific of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), notes that “big communication work” is needed to persuade the duck raisers that stricter measures are needed to contain the spread of bird flu. She says these raisers need more information on the disease and the consequences of a bird-flu outbreak.

“What’s the nature of ducks?” Ruben Pascual, overall coordinator of Project Blue, the NAITF’s information and education arm, asks rhetorically. “You don’t feed them with commercial feeds. Papastulin mo sila (You let them graze outside). That’s how dangerous the behavior of the ducks is.”

Experts say the domestic ducks’ role in spreading the bird-flu virus cannot be underestimated since ducks are in regular contact with migratory birds. The wild waterfowl can pass the virus through contact with domestic ducks, which usually graze in the same rice fields and wetlands, feeding on snails and worms. The ducks can “silently” infect domestic poultry, experts say, since ducks are asymptomatic, meaning they can excrete large quantities of the deadly virus even if they are not displaying any signs of illness.

Migratory birds, specifically wild waterfowl, have long been known as natural reservoir of low pathogenic influenza viruses. But new epidemiological data suggest that “wild waterfowl may play an important role in the avian influenza cycle and could be an initial source for some highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses,” the FAO said in a recent report.

The Philippines is part of the of the Eastern Asian/Australian flyway —a major migration route. From September to March, migratory birds in Siberia fly southward, passing by China and resting in some Philippine wetlands. Some of the birds stay here during the entire winter season, but there are those that head farther south, to Indonesia and Australia.

Experts say it is impossible to stop wild birds from entering the Philippines. Haribon operations group director Blas Troy Tabaranza Jr., a wildlife biologist by profession, says the country is embedded in the wild birds “mental map.” It’s also neither practical nor effective to cull all wild birds, he says.

This is why the Bureau of Animal Industry has to be content with testing blood samples taken from chickens, ducks, turkey, backyard game fowl and quail raised in “critical” areas, including Candaba swamp in Pampanga, Naujan Lake in Mindoro, Olango Island in Cebu and Ligwasan Marsh in Cotabato. The Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), meanwhile, is supposed to report any occurrence of dead migratory birds. Dead birds will immediately undergo diagnosis and laboratory testing.

Pascual theorizes that one of the reasons why Indonesia, which is an archipelagic country like the Philippines, has not been able to escape bird flu could be because it has a large duck population of about 30 million.

In contrast, the Philippines has only 10 million ducks, with duck raisers accounting for only 1 percent of agricultural output. Ducks here are usually raised for their eggs—some are made into salted eggs, but most end up as balut, a local delicacy that is actually a partially incubated duck egg harvested and cooked when the embryo is between 14 and 18 days old.

Still, the fact that the duck industry is made up largely of backyard raisers who let their ducks graze and wander around should be reason for concern, say experts.

But Leandro Santos, cochair of the newly formed Duck Industry Association of the Philippines, argues that not allowing ducks to graze at all would only bring another burden to duck raisers who are already saddled with a host of problems. He says such a move would force them to shell out more money for commercial feeds, which they would now need all year round. It would also hurt the livelihood of those who rely on duck-raising for a living, including caretakers who graze the ducks and truckers who deliver ducks to large-scale balut producers, he says.

“A lot of people will lose their livelihood,” says Santos. “Kailangan din naming kumain (We also need to eat).”

According to Pascual, private feed millers are proposing that duck raisers form a cooperative to manage a feed mill and help reduce feed cost. But Santos says this won’t help much in reducing the cost of production. He adds that duck raisers, who organized themselves only last year, are simply not ready for this yet because they need to address other problems first, such as the improvement of balut and duck-meat marketing and raising productivity of their ducks.

Rolando Dy, executive director of the Center for Food and Agribusiness at the University of Asia and the Pacific, thus suggests that the government consider providing alternative livelihood and/or compensation to duck raisers. He also points out: “You have to mobilize (local governments) to implement (AIPP)... do you think a barangay captain, who may be a duck raiser, will enforce these measures if there’s no compensation?”

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has set aside funds to ensure the country’s bird flu-free status remains. But Dy wonders: “It’s easy to say there’s a budget. But is that really cash which can be withdrawn from the bank when needed?”

President Arroyo has allocated P2.5 billion for bird flu on top of the DA’s proposed budget of P15.7 billion for 2006, but this is still subject to Congress approval. Of this, P1.5 billion will fund preventive measures, including expanding and upgrading diagnostic laboratories, buying vaccines and setting up training and information programs. The remaining P1 billion will go to the containment of the disease should it strike, with P500 million budgeted for indemnification, as the government will be partially compensating farmers who need to cull their chickens to halt the spread of the virus.


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