JAKARTA, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Indonesia's reluctance to cull chickens infected by bird flu has been attacked by critics who argue that the deadly virus is seriously harming the country's poultry industry. The industry says the avian influenza virus has already caused up to $120 million damage.
"What we need now is the government's strong and immediate act in combating the bird flu from spreading further," said Heru Ananto, chairman of the Indonesian Poultry Farmers Association.
"We're seriously worried that the government has no immediate plans to destroy those infected chickens," Ananto told United Press International.
A plan announced on Tuesday by local government officials in bird flu-infected East Java province to sell chicken meat for consumption, may trigger more criticism that Indonesia has failed to act seriously in containing the disease.
Agriculture Minister Bungaran Saragih refused to follow other nations in ordering a mass cull despite the outbreak.
"We will not follow the measures taken by neighboring countries to exterminate infected chickens due to economic considerations," Saragih said.
After months of insisting the country was free of bird flu, officials at Indonesia's Agriculture Ministry confirmed on Sunday that the virus had spread through poultry farms and killed as many as 4.7 million chickens.
Critics, including researchers who have studied the disease, have said the number is far higher, and that up to 15 million chickens have died since September.
"The rising in number of the killed chickens was due to no step of mass eradicating on the bird flu-infected poultries," said Marthen Malole, a veterinary researcher at the state-run Bogor Institute of Agriculture.
Malole said the government was "too slow" in efforts to contain the disease.
"We're really disappointed with the government's failure by not warning us about bird flu and assisting us how to contain the virus," said Murdjianto, a poultry farmer in East Java district of Magetan.
Unlike other countries in the region, where bird flu has killed several people, there have been no reported cases of bird flu infecting humans in Indonesia.
The government's acknowledgement of the bird flu outbreak prompted the Japanese and Chinese governments to stop importing poultry meats and products from Indonesia.
The World Health Organization warned that the rapid spread of avian flu across Asia may be outstripping the ability of developing nations to contain the virus and reduce the risks.
However, the WHO reported on its Web site that there is no information the disease is spreading among humans. As a precaution, the WHO advised people to thoroughly cook all foods from poultry, including eggs.
"The government is too slow in handling the problem and is giving opportunities for the virus to spread to other areas in the country," said Anton J. Supit, chairman of the Indonesian Poultry Breeders Association.
Researchers have said the country's 2.5 million poultry workers were in danger of being infected by the virus.
However, officials don't believe the outbreak will affect the country's tourist industry.
"It won't be as frightening as SARS," said Meity Robot, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Tourist Society. "Nevertheless, the government should have some measures in place to prevent it from becoming a problem."
On the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where tourist arrivals last year sharply declined due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome scare, there are plans for a chicken-eating festival this week to calm down bird flu fears among foreign visitors.