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Bird Flu Causes Human Deaths In Egypt, Threatens Way of Life

By Michael Slackman


Given the choice between the possibility her children would fall ill from bird flu or the certainty they would go hungry if she got rid of the ducks she raised in her home, Hamida Abdullah said there was really no choice at all.

“You think we are going to fast?” Abdullah said as she pushed open a door to expose a sad-looking, feces-covered pen where a dozen muddy ducks chased one another.

It has been two months since Egypt confirmed that avian flu had arrived in the Arab world’s most populous country. Since then 12 humans have developed the illness, and some have died.

A government news agency said Thursday there had been a fourth human death, Reuters reported.

Egyptian authorities did not hide the flu’s arrival, but government officials did not seem well prepared to deal with it. There was no clear policy initially for trying to keep the disease from spreading. Then, after the government decided to vaccinate domestic poultry against the flu, it was learned there was not enough vaccine, people in the poultry industry said.

The government then turned to culling birds, relying on Egyptian security forces to carry out the culls. Some poultry industry experts said this only contributed to spreading the disease.

As in many other developing countries, the Egyptian government was faced with not just with a medical and scientific battle, but also a serious social problem that threatened to undermine stability in vast stretches of poor, rural communities.

Telling poor Egyptians in the countryside that they cannot raise poultry at home for food and extra income would be like prohibiting Russians from growing vegetables at their dachas. It would cut off not only a crucial source of nutrition, but also a lifestyle that has deep cultural roots.

The government recognized that it was impossible to ban raising birds at home, and so it allowed people outside the city to keep their personal flocks, so long as they were caged and healthy.

Bird flu has devastated Egypt’s poultry industry, effectively reducing a stock of an estimated 100 million broiler chickens at any given time by 95 percent from both disease and culling. But the tragedy of the disease is most evident in the Nile Delta region north of Cairo, the nation’s breadbasket and now an incubator of fear and bird flu.