April 11, 2006

Ordinary Indonesians unafraid of bird flu threat

By Heri Retnowati

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Poultry vendor Ahmad Jamal
plucks, dissects and cleans hundreds of chickens and ducks
every day in an Indonesian market, but takes the risk of bird
flu as a matter of fate.

"If I die from bird flu, that is my destiny. But if I have
to wear shoes, gloves and masks, my work becomes slow and my
impatient customers will go somewhere else," he said while
cleaning the guts of a chicken with his bare hands.

"If that happens, I'll be dead," said the 28 year-old
Jamal, who has worked at a market in a Surabaya slum for a

Bird flu has killed at least 24 people in Indonesia since
2003 and half of those deaths have occurred this year. The vast
majority of people become infected by handling sick birds.

Yet many ordinary Indonesians, who keep pet birds or
backyard fowl, aren't inclined to take extra steps to protect

The public faces plenty of other problems from poverty to
sectarian violence, militancy and even earthquakes and

"You can die anytime. My father and three bothers died in
one day. (The attackers) were more ruthless than bird flu,"
said chicken plucker Ali Marzuki who had to move to Surabaya
after his family was killed in sectarian violence on Borneo

By comparison, malaria and tuberculosis kill hundreds every
year in the sprawling archipelago. The December 2004 tsunami
left 170,000 Indonesians dead or missing, while a bomb attack
by militants in Bali in 2002 killed 202 people.

The government, though, is worried and has declared bird
flu a threat to the nation. Local media give the disease wide

International experts say the disease could turn into a
pandemic, killing millions of people, choking economies and
ruining the livelihoods of Jamal and countless others like him.


So far, all the human deaths from bird flu have been
sourced to the western side of the country's main island of
Java, mostly in the nation's capital Jakarta and its suburbs.

Nobody in Surabaya, the country's second most populous
city, has died of avian influenza.

But the H5N1 bird flu virus has been detected among poultry
in about two-thirds of the country's 33 provinces, including
East Java, for which Surabaya is the regional commercial hub.

Health activists say some awareness is there but the public

needs more guidance from the government.

"The people actually are not numb but they don't know where
to go," said Marius Widjajarta, a physician and head of the
Indonesian Health Consumer Empowerment Foundation.

"The government actually has some sense of crisis but the
coordination among agencies is still not good," he told

The rising Indonesian toll is worrying world health
officials who fear the more the virus spreads in birds, the
more human cases there will be and the greater the risk H5N1
might mutate into a form that could pass from person to person.

But Indonesian officials say the spread of the virus has

A World Health Organization official in Jakarta said the
bird flu situation in the world's fourth-most populous country
was still urgent but it would take time to cope due to lack of


The World Bank said that should not be an excuse.

"Given the global threat and the global implications of the
avian flu, the World Bank is also seeking to mobilize grant
funding from other donors (and) would like to make sure that
financing is not a constraint for countries fighting the avian
flu," said Mohamad al-Arief, the Bank spokesman in Indonesia.

The special government team handling the bird flu threat
said Indonesian efforts needed to take into account the plight
of people like Jamal, whose livelihoods depend on poultry.

There are many poultry farms in the middle of crowded
Indonesian residential areas and many urban households keep
livestock in their yards as pets or a source of income.

Indonesia has shied away from taking the policy of all-out
mass culling of such birds because 30 percent of the country's
more than one billion chickens are backyard fowl.

"These farmers live or die from this business. We do not
want to cause panic and do things out of proportion," said Bayu
Krisnamurti, in charge of the team's daily activities.

Panic seemed far from the minds of people in the Surabaya
market, where chicken waste is thrown into an open gutter
mixing with the slush from homes before it drains into a thick,
black canal.

"Why should I be afraid? If I am afraid, I wouldn't be
opening my stall," said fried chicken kiosk owner Munawaroh,
41, who was taking out live chickens from their cages without
gloves before ordering Jamal to cut them into pieces.

(Additional reporting by Diyan Jari and Reuben Carder in