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Vietnam shines over bird flu

31st October 2006

Among the countries affected by avian influenza H5N1, Vietnam has been so successful in controlling the outbreak that others are hoping to learn from its example.

The communist country was one of the first hit by the virus in the current outbreak: It discovered its first human infections in December 2003 and its first widespread poultry outbreaks in January 2004. And it was one of the hardest hit, with 66 million birds culled to prevent spread of the virus, and more human infections than any other country to date.

But it has also controlled the virus more successfully than any other country where the disease became endemic, with no new human cases since last November and only a handful of infected birds this year—12 farm chickens and ducks, and a small flock of tame storks in an amusement park.

The shift is so striking that international health authorities are asking whether Vietnam's success can be replicated elsewhere. But reproducing its efforts faces an unusual hurdle: sorting out which of its aggressive interventions actually made a difference.

After responding to its 2004 outbreaks mainly by culling infected flocks, Vietnam in 2005 became the first country to institute mandatory nationwide poultry vaccination.

In addition—and almost simultaneously—the national government banned poultry rearing and live-market sales in urban areas; restricted commercial raising of ducks and quail, which can harbor the virus asymptomatically; imposed strict controls on poultry transport within Vietnam and agreed to examine illegal cross-border trade; and launched an aggressive public education campaign that deployed radio and TV advertising, neighborhood loudspeaker announcements, and outreach by powerful internal groups such as the Women's Union and Farmers' Union.

The country also compensated farmers for birds that had to be killed—initially at 10% of the birds' market value, and now at 75%.

Outside the country, experts presume the engine of flu control to be the pervasive influence of Vietnamese-style socialism, which extends from the national government through provinces, districts, and communes to individual "neighborhood committees."

But within Vietnam, workers in avian-flu control say the country's success depends as much on the population's support as it does on political coercion—a factor that may bode well for the national government's plans to change the country's entire culture of poultry rearing, distribution, purchase, and sale.


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