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HEALTH-LAOS: Women Recruited Into War on Bird Flu

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 31 2007 (IPS) - Women from ethnic communities in the hilly, northern part of Laos have, for over a decade, been drawn into poultry breeding as a means of combating poverty.

However, this initiative has come up against a daunting challenge in the shape of the deadly avian influenza (AI) virus which has flared up in many parts of South-east Asia in the new year. To counter this, the Asian Development Bank (AsDB), which is backing this project, is again turning to women as the best defenders of their communities.

”Giving women the knowledge and tools to stop the spread of avian influenza is absolutely imperative,” Manoshi Mitra, senior social development specialist at the AsDB, told IPS from the bank’s office in Manila. ‘’They will be taught how to identify the disease and equipped with first aid kits, too.”

”We have to convince them that they are the ones who will lose if there is an outbreak. It will impact them directly,” she added. ‘’We want to employ one female poultry worker for every community.”

The AsDB project, which gets underway in February, is geared to help poverty-stricken ethnic families that are already disadvantaged because they speak a language that is different from the Lao that is spoken by the majority. An estimated 17,000 households in 400 villages are expected to gain from this initiative.

Across the rest of land-locked Laos, breeding poultry has become the mainstay of village economies. ‘’It is evident that every family has backyard poultry – between 10 to 30 chickens per household,” Abdulai KaiKai, project officer at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) office in Laos, said in an interview from Vientiane. ‘’The income from the sale of eggs and chicken helps supplement the family income.”

Since July 2006, UNICEF has been leading an awareness campaign in the provinces to stem the spread of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. ‘’There have been puppet shows and dramas with a bird flu theme that tells people what they should do to stay safe,” added KaiKai. ‘’About a fifth of the villages have been covered through this.”

Laos, which is South-east Asia’s poorest country, has proved a mystery since the deadly strain of avian influenza first appeared in the winter of 2003 in this region and kept reappearing subsequently as temperatures dropped during the northern winters. It has had very few bird flu outbreaks in its poultry population and none of the country’s 5.4 million people have fallen ill.

By contrast, all of its immediate neighbours – China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – have been hit by the virus, affecting both humans and poultry. Vietnam and Thailand are currently grappling with a new outbreak of bird flu. Since the winter of 2003, 42 people have died in Vietnam out of the 93 reported cases, while 17 people have died in Thailand out of the 25 reported cases and Cambodia has recorded six deaths from six cases.

There was a minor bird flu outbreak in March 2004, with a bulk of the 46 poultry farms hit being near Vientiane, the capital, and a second outbreak in July 2006. ‘’There has been no evidence since December 2003 that suggests H5N1 is raging through the villages,” Tony Williams, avian influenza team leader at the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) office in Laos, told IPS. ‘’Laos has escaped the worst of bird flu.”

What has helped, according to the food agency, is the relative distance of rural communities from each other. ‘’The relative isolation of villages has been a positive factor in safeguarding the communities from the spread of AI,” says Williams.

According to the FAO, transporting poultry without proper safeguards has been a key feature in fuelling the spread of the virus, with Indonesia, the worst affected country illustrative of this trend. By the end of January, Indonesia had reported 63 deaths out of 81 cases of infection.

‘’Wild birds are less responsible for the spread of the virus in the current outbreak,” says Hiroyuki Konuma, deputy head of FAO’s Asia-Pacific office. ‘’Poultry trade and the movement of live birds have played a role in spreading the virus.”

Since the beginning of the year, FAO had recorded new bird flu cases in China, Egypt, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. It equals the same number of countries – then all in North-east and South-east Asia – that had recorded AI outbreaks in 2003. During the 2005-2006 period, the virus took wing, spreading beyond Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Till the current cycle of outbreaks, now in its fourth winter season, poultry breeding was promoted as an option for women in rural communities for additional income. ‘’It was seen as a way for women to start a business and take the first step out of poverty,” Anni McLeod, senior livestock policy officer at FAO, told IPS. ‘’It required very little investment, that could be managed by women and the turnover was very fast.”

Bangladesh, which has over 60 million people living in poverty, had emerged as a celebrated example of this development model before the latest bird flu outbreak. According to the AsDB, poultry breeding by some 500,000 people, most of them women, had helped transform many poor communities.

They were able to ‘’put more food on the table, educate their children, and even save enough to lease or buy agricultural land, thanks to an innovative livestock project,” says an AsDB officer. ‘’The project (trained) women in raising chicks as well as local hens and ducks, managing poultry production and sales, and providing veterinary care.”

The regional financial institution hopes to replicate in Laos the successes in Bangladesh. ‘’Bangladesh represented a real success story,” says Mitra. ‘’It demonstrated the importance of poultry breeding in lifting women and their families out of poverty.”

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