Dutch declare war on avian flu

Bird farmers hope they don't see replay of 2003 virus that ruined many operations


TIENRAY, Netherlands -- The chicken farmer named Gerard Witlox works his farm hard and smart, with a strong back and a sharp pencil, cleaning meticulously after the birds, providing them just the precise mix of feed, protecting them from sickness and disease because, simply, their lives depend on him.

And, in many ways, his life depends on them.

In this community in southern Netherlands, about 10 miles from the German border, poultry farmers like Witlox are expecting the arrival of the avian flu and are preparing as if for war with an invading army.

With good reason.

Outbreaks of even the milder strains of avian flu can destroy entire farms. The strain that has been tracked moving westward this autumn, into Europe from Asia, is one of the most lethal and contagious, called H5N1.

It has killed millions of birds in Asia and the countries in the path of its rapid westward sweep, which has extended to Croatia, Romania, Turkey and Greece with no sign of stopping. (A bird in Britain that is suspected of carrying the virus was a parrot being imported to the country, the government said, and was under quarantine when it arrived and had no opportunity to spread the virus.)

Adding to the sense of urgency are concerns among health authorities that the virus could mutate from its current form to one that could easily be passed from person to person, potentially killing millions of people. Some experts consider that unlikely, but even the chance of a deadly pandemic has governments and scientists scrambling.

Livelihoods at risk

The farmers of the world, though, have their livelihoods and farms to lose, with thousands of farms and millions more birds at very real risk.

Here, about 6,000 poultry farms lie tucked among vast fields of roses and tulips, of rows of bowling-ball-sized cabbages and head-high corn -- bird farms almost invariably run by families and a hired hand or two.

The politics and the worldwide patchwork of policies spawned by the flu are based in part on desperate guesswork because of a lack of certainties, and the policies are of little help to these farmers. They are preparing for a fight, unarmed but for their wits, a bit of experience and a desire for survival.

"If my chickens die, my farm dies," Witlox, 48, said last week, standing outside two chicken houses that hold about half of the 120,000 chickens he hopes to sell as meat.

"If my farm dies," he added, "I die."

People in the Netherlands seem to have little doubt the virus will reach them.

Even in the best of times, success for farmers depends on luck as well as financial competence and innovations aimed at improved efficiency. For poultry farmers, success can hinge on the difference of a single penny per egg or an extra nickel for a bird raised for meat. The discovery of a single infected bird on a single farm would likely lead to the destruction of millions of birds on hundreds of farms, a blow that many farmers here could not recover from.

Many of them, waiting for that first discovery, feel very much on their own.

"I can't believe that all these world bodies, these men in suits spending so much money in big offices in big buildings, have done nothing to solve this," Witlox said. "I'm a simple farmer like my neighbors are simple farmers. But we'll fight the best we can."

Two years ago, a strain of flu struck this area, wiping out 30 million birds -- ducks, turkeys and mostly chickens -- about 30 percent of the national flock, according to the Netherlands Organization of Poultry Farmers.

The birds were gassed to death, until the gas ran out, and then they were electrocuted and burned.

The infected areas were mostly adjacent to each other, in two large clusters totaling 255 farms. If one bird tested positive for the virus, every bird on the farm was destroyed and burned on the spot. None was transported elsewhere.

But officials and farmers in Holland agreed that authorities in countries hit earlier by the virus had not been aggressive enough, that in trying to save their own healthy birds they had caused the death of millions elsewhere.

In the Netherlands, the adopted strategy was to kill even healthy birds on uninfected farms that were within about a mile or so of any infected farm. The aim was to create a bird-free buffer. The tactic was similar to that of a controlled burn used to fight forest fires, when firefighters burn a wide trench of trees and brush so that an out-of-control fire, when it reaches the trench, is starved of fuel.

In the same way, the strategy went, the virus could not spread because its means of progression had been eliminated with the destruction of the healthy birds.

Every bird on about 1,000 Dutch farms was killed and burned, according to the poultry organization. The industry nearly had to be destroyed to save it.

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