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Cock-fights blamed for Thailand bird flu spread

The illegal movement of infected poultry, especially fighting cocks and ducks, has helped spread the bird flu virus to seven provinces in Thailand, officials said.
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A Thai man cleans his fighting cock at his house on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand on Oct. 28.Apichart Weerawong / AP
/ Source: Reuters

The illegal movement of infected poultry, especially fighting cocks and ducks, has helped spread the bird flu virus to seven provinces in Thailand, officials said on Wednesday.

In the latest outbreak of the H5N1 virus, which has killed 13 Thais, laboratory results confirmed it in chickens and pigeons in the central province of Ang Thong, the Department of Livestock Department said on its Web site, www.dld.go.th.

Tests from 40 other provinces where poultry were reported to have died in suspicious circumstances were under way, but Livestock Department chief Yukol Limlaemthong told Reuters that was not a figure that should cause concern.

Such deaths were normal at this time of year, with the rainy season ending and the cooler, dry season beginning, he said.

Six of the seven infected provinces were clustered in central Thailand, with the other, Kalasin, in the northeast where fighting cocks might have caught the deadly disease from those in the infected central region, livestock officials said.

“Kalasin, which had outbreaks last year from fighting cocks, is very far from the infected central region,” Yukol said.

Despite a monitoring system involving one million volunteers who educate farmers and villagers with backyard flocks about the virus and alert officials in cases of suspicious deaths, illegal movements were hard to stop, he said.

“No matter how strict the measures to control the movement will be, these birds can be easily concealed. Just keep him in a shoulder bag and officials will never find him,” Yukol said of fighting cocks which can sell for 100,000 baht ($2,500).

So far, however, the new outbreaks are many fewer than at the same time last year, when 44 of Thailand’s 76 provinces had reported fresh outbreaks.

Strict measures
The government has imposed strict measures to try to curb the spread of bird flu, including restricting movements of fighting cocks and eliminating a traditional way of raising ducks by moving large flocks around.

Fighting cocks and ducks were more resilient to the virus than farmed chickens and could pass on the disease without showing symptoms, Yukol said.

The government had set a March, 2005 deadline for halting the large-scale movement of 3,700 flocks of ducks that owners moved around to new feeding grounds, but extended it to December after owners protested and might extend it again, officials said.

Yukol said rural livestock officials faced tough battles to restrict movements of fighting cocks, or even culling them, as many are owned by influential local figures.

“Who dares to touch them? My livestock officials don’t,” he told reporters after a bird flu seminar.

He estimated there were around one million fighting cocks in Thailand, 300,000 of them involved in fights regularly, but only 40,000 had been registered and issued with a “passport”, which must be shown to officials when they were being moved.

Owners often hide their prize fighters as the government pays only 75 percent of the market rate for ordinary chickens culled no matter what their attributes and nothing if they did not report suspicious deaths. Yukol said that would not change.

“What criteria can we use to say this fighting cock is worth 100,000 baht? When it loses two bouts, it will have to go to the broth pot,” Yukol said.

The H5N1 virus has killed 62 people and infected 122 in four Asian countries since the virus resurfaced in Asia in late 2003.

The World Health Organization has said the H5N1 strain is endemic in poultry across much of Asia and it could only be a matter of time before it develops the ability to pass easily from human to human, triggering a pandemic that could kill millions.