Sunday, February 13, 2005

Is bird flu vaccine for the birds?

In the wake of the post I did on the less-there-than-meets-the-eye Chinese vaccine for bird flu, comes this article from The Star (Singapore):
A BIRD flu vaccine for poultry could help prevent the spread of the disease, much like how firefighters surround a hot spot before moving in to put out the flames, says Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

But vaccinated or not, said its deputy chief executive officer Dr Chua Sin Bin, all birds in affected areas must be culled or the vaccine could turn into a double-edged sword – masking the symptoms of infected birds while fanning the flames of infection.

“Vaccinating is a stop-gap measure, when animals cannot be culled fast enough to check the spread of the disease,” he said.

It will not eradicate the disease that is endemic in the region but is “part of a multi-pronged approach that also includes extensive testing and the culling of animals.”

He was responding to queries on an announcement by Chinese scientists this week that they had developed a new vaccine which could protect poultry from bird flu for a longer period of time than existing drugs.

They said their vaccine provided at least 10 months of protection for chickens and ducks.

The current vaccine can offer six months’ protection.

Officials in China said vaccinations will be administered not only to birds at poultry farms but also to water fowl in the country’s key water areas, including rivers and lakes, to prevent the spread of bird flu from China’s neighbours once birds begin migrating north.

Vietnam, which has been hit hard by the virus, has said that it will use the new vaccine on its poultry flocks by the end of the year if tests to prove its viability are successful.

But vaccinations will not be an option in Singapore, Dr Chua said, because vaccinated birds can still catch and spread the disease, although the symptoms may be masked.

“We don’t want to have a situation in which the bird may look healthy but can still spread the disease,” he said.

“Neither do we want farmers here to have a false sense of security and let down their guard.

“It would be dangerous to do this in a country which is free of bird flu,” he added.

All two million chickens in Singapore’s five poultry farms will be slaughtered and their carcasses incinerated if a single case of the flu is detected here. [snip]
Sounds right to me. But then, Dr. Chua adds this:
“It’s not the large commercial farms which are causing the spread of bird flu, it’s the small-scale ones where people breed the animals for their own consumption or trade,” he said.
Hmmm. Not so fast, Dr. Chua. This may be right, but I have been sensitized by the perspective of anthropologist Ron Nigh, writing here, here, here and here. Nigh presents a good argument that it is the large commercial farms that are making the flu happen, if not spreading it.

I have the sinking feeling that the (justified) fear of bird flu is being used to transform agriculture to agribusiness.