Bird flu: Indonesian government not solely to blame for country's outbreak

Jakarta 5 Feb.(AKI) – As the number of people in Indonesia killed by bird flu soared to 103 human fatalities, a UN expert says that the government cannot be the only culprit for failing to stop the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus.

Speaking to Adnkronos International (AKI), John Weaver, senior technical advisor on bird flu at UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Indonesia, said that the Indonesian government needs to improve its response but that global support is also crucial if the virus has to be contained.

“We would like to see the government doing more. But we also need bigger support, courageous commitment, from the international community which needs to do more to toll this disease,” Weaver said

Indonesia’s officials have been accused of being slow in sharing information, slow to carry out checks and held back by creaking bureaucracy. A 29-year-old woman from a suburb of Jakarta died of bird flu on Monday, the Indonesian health ministry announced, bringing the country's human death toll to 103.

The southeast Asian country has, by far, the world’s highest mortality rate from bird flu. Out of a total 124 people infected in Indonesia by the virus, according to the latest figures from the UN World Health Organisation (WHO), just 21 people have survived.

Weaver said that Indonesia’s ongoing decentralisation process – begun after the fall of former dictator Suharto in 1998 - has worsened coordination of the country’s response to bird flu.  

“Now you have so many autonomous agencies, districts and sub-districts, it is very hard to get any sort of authoritarian response through the system,” he said.

Fighting bird flu is a massive challenge for a country such as Indonesia, however, Weaver added.  

"There is an enormous task ahead of the control programme, and some of these are long-term developmental issues,” he said.

 “We have a diffuse situation all over the country. You have to drive down the disease instance by looking critically at how it is being transmitted, and at the distribution networks,” Weaver said.

 Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands, where chicken is a staple food for the vast majority of the country's 240 million people.

Birds and humans interact freely in backyards where chickens are reared. Hygiene is generally poor at the country's wet markets, where poultry is sold, and outside the main cities, medical infrastructure is virtually non-existent.

 The country has received international help, but Weaver said "More is needed."

 In 2007, the Indonesian bird flu control program received 65.5 million dollars in international funding, as well as 61 million dollars from the national government.

A new three-year plan to fight bird flu in Indonesia was launched last week. This is to be funded by a 20 million dollar grant from the European Union and channelled through the WHO.

According to figures from the WHO, just under half of all bird flu deaths worldwide since 2005 have occurred in Indonesia.

Vietnam, with 48 deaths is the second most affected country.

Humans catch bird flu mostly through contact with infected poultry, but experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that could pass more easily between humans, possibly killing millions around the world.

There have been some 225 deaths worldwide since the H5N1 outbreak began in 2003, with Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, China and Thailand reporting the greatest number of cases, according to the WHO.


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