Selling Chickens in Bird Flu Country

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There are few marketing challenges quite so daunting as selling chickens in a country made skittish over avian flu. At a market in south Jakarta, one enterprising butcher has placed a handwritten “Free of Bird Flu” sign on top of a pile of dead chickens, with mixed results. Rusadi (like many Indonesians, he has only one name) made the cardboard sign because he was tired of being asked about the health of his merchandise. "I've been selling chicken for years and never had to do this," he says. Despite the reassuring signage, business is slow. Sales are down about 30 percent, which is still better than earlier in the year, when Rusadi sold nothing for a week after the first death caused by bird flu in Indonesia was confirmed in July. "A lot of people,” he says, “are switching to fish."

Though there are no known cases of avian flu being transmitted by eating infected birds, chicken is off the menu for many in Southeast Asia. At least 130 people in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have contracted the virus—and 67 of them have died—this year. While human fatalities in Indonesia have been relatively few (13 known infections and eight dead), the number of infected birds in the country is thought to be significant. "Based on our research, the virus has spread all over the city," Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono told reporters last week in Jakarta. "It is very serious."

The government has so far resisted mass killing of birds even though the virus has been detected in at least 23 of the country's 32 provinces. Compensation to farmers remains the main issue, with the government opting for vaccination as a less expensive way of controlling the spread of the virus in birds. "The government has allocated 134 billion rupiah [about $15 million] for vaccines, surveillance and prevention, but only a small amount for compensation, as mass culling is not the official policy," explains Mulyanto, an expert from the Agriculture Ministry's surveillance department.

While the spread of bird flu has yet to cause significant panic, the government is taking seriously fears that the virus may jump into the human population. On Friday, Health Minister Siti Fadila Supari announced that Indonesia had been granted a license to produce Tamiflu, the best-known treatment for bird flu. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche approved requests to domestically produce and distribute the medication in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, where the anti-viral drug is not patent protected.