Experts say greater vigilance and prompt action are needed to prevent the virus from spreading to epidemic proportions
Live chicken and ducks sold illegally on Truong Dai Bridge in Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District. Experts have urged better vigilance among fowl farmers and traders to avoid bird flu outbreaks.
Le Thi Bay raises dozens of chickens in her back yard that are slaughtered on special occasions like the death anniversary of ancestors.
She has never had the fowls vaccinated against bird flu, except once several years ago when local authorities offered free vaccinations for chickens and ducks following an epidemic of the H5N1 virus.
"It's only a couple of chickens. Many others who breed small number of chickens at their house also don't have them vaccinated," said the retired midwife in Long An Province's Chau Thanh District.
Just before the Tet (January 23) festival, she gave her relative in Ho Chi Minh City two chicken who brought them back alive although it is illegal to transport live fowl into the city. The chickens were later slaughtered for a meal as an offering to deceased ancestors a traditional ritual conducted on the third day of the lunar year.
The rearing, consuming and gifting of chicken is common practice. This has prompted experts to warn of low awareness of the dangers posed by bird flu that claimed two lives last month - an 18-year-old man in Kien Giang and 26-year-old woman in Soc Trang province.
"Many farmers have ignored the crucial preventive measure of vaccination and often panicked once bird flu spreads," said Nguyen Xuan Binh, director of the Animal Health Agency No. 6 (The agency monitors animal health issues in HCMC and the provinces of Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Dong Nai, Binh Phuoc, Binh Duong, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Long An, Tien Giang, Ben Tre and Tay Ninh).
Duc, owner of a large chicken farm in Long An, said only those breeding thousands of chickens at a time like him have their fowls vaccinated because the possible damage is significant.
A vet in Long An, who wanted to remain unnamed, pointed out that it was dangerous for farmers to ignore vaccination or refuse to cull diseased fowls.
"Many farmers go to local veterinary medicine shops to buy bird flu vaccine. After learning that the vaccine is only sold at the provincial animal health department that is far away, they just ignore the vaccination," he said, adding that the vaccine should be sold through private vet medicine shops for better prevention against the disease.
He said that during the spread of bird flu over the past years, many farmers refused to hand the animals to local animal health authorities for culling just because of some delay.
"The government has supported farmers who have culled diseased chickens. The support per chicken is sometimes higher than the market price but the farmers still sold their fowls for quick money," he said.
Meanwhile, the illegal trade of live chickens and ducks in HCMC thrives, posing a greater risk of the spread of the H5N1 virus.
A quick tour around the city found live chickens and ducks being sold at many places, including Le Duc Tho, Ben Xom Cui, Pham Hung and Pham The Hien streets in Go Vap District and District 8.
Phan Xuan Thao, director of the HCMC Animal Health Agency, said the city has formed a mobile task force including the traffic police, market watchdogs, animal health agency and youth volunteers to act against illegal fowl trading on the streets.
"However, local authorities should monitor those places more closely because they often resume trading of live fowls soon after we leave," he said.
With just four stations at entry points into the city, Thao said they can only inspect the transport of big consignments of fowl. It is difficult to monitor small loads, he said.
Bird flu first hit Vietnam in 2003 and it has killed and led to the forced culling of millions of fowls in Vietnam. A total of 119 human cases had been confirmed as of March 2011, including 59 fatalities.
On February 5, the Department of Animal Health confirmed a recurrence of bird flu in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang after 90 chickens in My Xuyen District's Ngoc Dong Commune died and tested positive for the disease.
Soc Trang was the third province, after Thanh Hoa and Quang Tri in the north-central region, to report the recurrence of bird flu this year.
Experts have stressed the need for multiple preventive measures because even vaccinated fowl may contract the virus.
"Poultry producers and the general public should always take simple precautions to reduce exposure to the virus from infected poultry," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.
"These include extra vigilance in cases of sudden disease and death in poultry, rapid reporting of disease to the authorities and good hygiene practices while handling, slaughtering and preparing poultry for consumption," the statement said.
There is no evidence to suggest yet that this new strain of the virus, spotted in August last year, carries any increased risk to human health, it added.
The antigenic variant that still belongs to clade 188.8.131.52 genetically, was first detected in Vietnam in January 2011, and had been confirmed only in two northern provinces by July 2011.
"A vaccine is required for protection of poultry against the antigenic variant detected within the clade 184.108.40.206. The work on this has already started in leading laboratories. Fortunately this 'variant' virus within the new clade 220.127.116.11 is having limited geographical circulation among poultry at the moment," the statement said.
Santanu Bandyopadhyay, senior technical coordinator at FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) Vietnam, said the high pathogenic avian influenza virus circulating in Vietnam since 2003/04 is already very virulent for poultry.
"There are some viruses within this new 18.104.22.168 (strain) in Vietnam from which poultry could not be protected at all by the current vaccine. Just remember that this new clade including the non-protectable 'rogue' viruses are in the north only so far," he said.
"The current vaccine is able to protect poultry against the majority of the viruses in the new clade 22.214.171.124 and also the existing clade 1, if properly vaccinated," he said, adding that the new vaccine for poultry may take between 6 months to 2 years to develop with all safety and protection parameters completed as per international protocol.