YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia, June 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
I t's not yet seven in the morning, but the slaughterhouses at
the back of Terban market in Yogyakarta city are in full swing.
Wholesalers, housewives and businessmen arrive on motorcycles,
weaving their way through blood and feathers to pick up freshly
Officers from Indonesia's Directorate General of Livestock
and Animal Health Services, sporting masks, gloves and aprons
with hair tucked under plastic caps, are on their weekly visit
to take samples to test for avian influenza, known as bird flu.
As the largest poultry market in Yogyakarta on Indonesia's
Java island, selling 30,000 chickens and ducks each day, Terban
is a hot spot for bird flu, which spreads through flocks via
direct contact with infected birds.
Such markets, together with high population density, massive
commercial poultry production and cultural practices such as
backyard chicken-rearing, have also made Indonesia a global
epicentre for human transmission of the H5N1 strain of bird flu.
Since 2003, this strain has infected 859 people and killed
453 in 16 countries, according to the World Health Organization.
Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam have borne the brunt, with
Indonesia suffering the largest death toll, at 167 people.
Scarred by the lives and assets lost in the 2003 outbreak,
Indonesia is now relying on local-level monitoring and testing
to keep pandemics at bay, working with international agencies
including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The Southeast Asian country is "endemic" for the H5N1 virus,
and outbreaks are still occurring, said James McGrane, team
leader of the FAO's Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal
Diseases in Indonesia.
The bird flu viruses are notoriously unstable, he added.
"They change all the time. So we need to ensure that we're
tracking the viruses in order that locally produced vaccines are
protecting flocks," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The H5N1 virus mostly affects birds, but experts fear it
could mutate and spread rapidly between people, triggering a
pandemic that could possibly kill millions.
The highly pathogenic virus jumped into humans in Hong Kong
in 1997 and re-emerged in 2003-2004, spreading from Asia to
Europe and Africa.
Experts say there are more bird flu strains now, including
H3N2, H5N1, H5N6, H5N8 and H7N9. Cases involving these strains
have been detected in Bangladesh, Britain, China, Hungary,
Italy, Kuwait, Russia, Taiwan and the United States.
Indonesia has found no new human cases or fatalities since
2015, but there is no room for complacency, say poultry farmers
and experts who witnessed the 2003 epidemic.
Robby Susanto's chickens escaped unscathed but his
neighbour's - a mere 4 metres (13 ft) away - were not so lucky.
Susanto later found out his chickens were spared because he
had used the right amount of disinfectant. Since then, he has
received FAO training on keeping his farm clean and protected.
"As a farmer I can't speak from a scientific point of view,
but that feeling of fear and worry is still there," he said.
For Bambamg Sutrisno, tragedy struck twice. In 2003, he had
to cull 11,000 out of his 30,000 chickens due to H5N1. Then in
2009, he lost more than half of his 60,000 chickens to bird flu
and two other diseases.
He has now implemented measures used by Susanto, such as
dividing the farm into zones according to bio-security risks,
and enforcing strict access and hygiene standards in chicken
"I used to have outbreaks every two or three years but after
2009, I started getting them every year," he said. "Since
implementing these steps, I haven't had any outbreaks in 18
Twenty cases of H5N1 virus in poultry were detected between
January and mid-May this year, said Sri Handayani Irianingsih, a
virologist at the government's Disease Investigation Centre
(DIC) in Wates, where samples from Terban market are tested.
The number of cases usually goes up as the dry season shifts
into the monsoon, she added.
Indonesia's eight DICs use an online system to monitor
different strains of influenza virus circulating in the country,
and advise the government on appropriate strains to use for
producing local poultry vaccines.
According to the FAO, nearly 20 percent of Indonesian
households own livestock, including poultry.
This has given rise to concerns over antimicrobial
resistance (AMR), caused by overuse and misuse of antibiotics,
which are given to treat livestock more than for human health.
In Indonesia, most antibiotics for animals are supplied
without veterinary prescription, noted Luuk Schoonman, chief
technical advisor for the FAO's avian influenza work in the
The World Bank calls AMR "a threat to the global economy",
warning it could cost the world up to 3.8 percent of annual
gross domestic product by 2050.
The International Livestock Research Institute identified
Indonesia, besides Myanmar, Nigeria, Peru and Vietnam, as future
hot spots for AMR based on livestock intensification patterns.
By 2030, Indonesia will have increased its use of
antimicrobial drugs by 200 percent as poultry production rises,
In Indonesia, antibiotics are also used in aquaculture,
putting it at high risk of AMR, as is the case in Thailand,
Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and Chile.
Yet most countries are not well-prepared for disease
pandemics and are failing to invest enough in preparedness,
warned a World Bank report last month.
One key solution is to invest in community health workers.
As local eyes and ears, they can facilitate early detection and
response to outbreaks, said Tim Evans, the World Bank's senior
director for health, nutrition and population.
But not everyone is worried about the threat.
Tulus Riyadi Wardoyo, 60, has been a poultry trader since he
was 16, and has never experienced or heard of bird flu cases in
poultry or humans.
"Since I was a kid, my neighbours raised backyard chickens -
I grew up with them. I'm immune," he said.
"This is very good business. It's where the money is," he
laughed, pointing at the chickens outside Terban's abattoirs.
(Reporting by Thin Lei Win, editing by Megan Rowling; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights,
corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)