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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Times on Jan. 20)

2014/01/20 07:05

Fear of bird flu outbreak

All-out quarantine measures needed to prevent spread

The government is stepping up quarantine measures after confirming the outbreak of a highly pathogenic avian influenza at a poultry farm in Gochang, North Jeolla Province. Officials identified the virus as H5N8, a highly pathogenic strain, the first seen in Korea in nearly three years.

The province's quarantine authorities culled 21,000 ducks at the farm and took preventive measures to stop the bird flu from spreading. No more culling was reported in nearby areas because there were no other poultry farms within a 500-meter radius.

But the outbreak in Gochang has put all farms nationwide on high alert. The farm in question provided about 170,000 ducklings to 24 other farms in North Jeolla and three other provinces. Furthermore, transporting vehicles crisscrossed the country, raising fears about the possibility of a nationwide spread of the disease.

In fact, another farm in Buan, North Jeolla, reported a suspected avian influenza case in which some 90 ducks died after showing similar symptoms. The government culled some 120,000 poultry in nearby farms as part of preventive measures.

The Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency also found about 1,000 migratory ducks dead in a reservoir, about 10 kilometers away from the Gochang farm. If the cause of the massive deaths proves to be the highly pathogenic strain, the ramifications from the latest bird flu could be far-reaching because the virus can be very strong and contagious. If avian influenza is confirmed, it would be the first case of the virus in migratory birds in Korea.

Fortunately, the farm and quarantine authorities seemed swift in responding to the outbreak, but this is no time for complacency, given that it was poor initial responses in the past that led to the rapid spread of the deadly disease.

Quarantine officials point to a flock of wild ducks that flew over the area on Jan. 6 as the source. They suspect the disease was likely transmitted through the feces of the animals, which are believed to have come from China, Vietnam or Australia ― all of which have had highly pathogenic bird flu outbreaks since November.

On Saturday night, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs issued an order in Jeolla provinces and Gwangju to temporarily prevent poultry, livestock raisers and their vehicles from leaving the areas on Sunday and Monday. The order was issued for the first time in accordance with the quarantine guidelines for avian influenza.

If past experiences are any guide, the outbreak could deal a fatal blow to the livelihoods of farmers and small business owners, who have already been beset with the prolonged economic slump. Avian influenza has hit Korea four times since 2003, causing about 2,200 farms to cull 23 million poultry as preventive measures. The estimated damage amounted to nearly 800 billion won.

All these explain why the central government should craft close cooperative ties with local governments and do their utmost to prevent the disease from further spreading. Top priority must be placed on minimizing losses.

The most worrying part is that people may hesitate to consume chicken and other poultry products out of health concerns. Science teaches us that even avian influenza -tainted meat can be eaten after being properly heated.

(END)