BANGKOK, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Thailand's chicken industry is far from chickenfeed; it's a key part of the economy. So when an outbreak of avian flu -- a disease that can and does spread to humans -- was earlier reported in neighboring countries, more than a few Thai feathers were ruffled.
At question now, however, is how will Thai officials and the poultry industry handle the fact that Thailand itself has been hit with avian flu? In breaking news Friday, Thai officials confirmed several cases of humans who had contracted avian flu and the fact that chickens from one province have tested positive for avian flu.
The World Health Organization said in a statement Friday: "The Ministry of Public Health in Thailand has today informed WHO of two cases of H5N1 avian influenza in humans. Both cases, which are in children, are laboratory confirmed."
In a reversal of long denials that bird flu might be present, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told news media, "It's not a big deal. If it's bird flu, it's bird flu. We can handle it."
But the potential economic hit would suggest that it will be a big deal. In each of 2001 and 2002, Thailand exported more than 300,000 tons of frozen poultry meat, and gained more than $500 million from the trade. After rice and rubber, of which Thailand is the world's largest exporter, frozen poultry is its third most important agricultural export. It has also been a fast-growing one, with the value of exports in U.S. dollars more than doubling since 1997. Add in other forms of chicken products, and the annual total hovers around $1 billion per year.
Since more than half of Thailand's population still lives and works off the land, the issue of chicken farming is of political as well as economic importance. No political group can afford to neglect the country's farmers. One of the reasons why Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has had a relatively easy ride from voters since he was elected three years ago is that farm incomes have been buoyant -- until now.
The appearance of avian flu in Asian countries, including nearby neighbor Vietnam, has been an alarming fact for Tai farmers and authorities. In Vietnam, more than two million chickens have died from the disease, or been culled to prevent its spread, where something between five and a dozen people have also died of the disease.
The chicken export trade of the officially infected countries has virtually halted as the result of the outbreaks. And lower domestic chicken consumption has also hit the remaining chicken farmers hard.
Some six million chickens are now unofficially estimated to have died or been culled in Thailand -- with the government earlier denying any connection with avian flu. The Thai chickens, it had been insisting, had died of bird cholera (Pasteurella Multocida)-- which at the time had hardly sounded comforting. However, this is a disease that is rarely transmitted to humans, and is not generally regarded as a serious risk.
The ongoing announcements that the country was free of avian flu comes hard on the heels of similar, and equally official, claims that Thailand was free of drugs and terrorists. Not long after the claim on terrorists, a terror suspect was arrested in Thailand. And the authorities continue to make high-profile narcotics seizures.
In what appears now a vindication, the chairman of the Consumer Force Association of Thailand has been alleging the government was covering up an avian flu epidemic, based on the opinions of some farmers that the symptoms being recorded do not fit those of Pasteurella infection.
A Thai senator, Nirun Phitakwatchara, also had been accusing the government of a cover-up, and had claimed that Thailand also has its first human victim of the current outbreak -- a claim also made by another consumer protection group.
Despite the earlier Thai denials, some countries have already been taking action against Thai chicken imports. Official bans are in place in Japan, Cambodia and Laos, and Australia appears to be operating an unofficial ban. Others, including the EU, are waiting for more news before taking further action. The Japanese ban is the crucial one since Japan accounts for around half of Thailand's foreign sales of chicken products. Domestic consumers are also wary, with chicken sales looking weak over the important Chinese New Year festivities.