It’s confirmed: Bird flu spreads to Nueva Ecija

Louise Maureen Simeon - The Philippine Star
It�s confirmed: Bird flu spreads to Nueva Ecija

A man tends to ducks at a farm in Laguna de Bay in Taguig yesterday. Duck raisers have expressed alarm over the spread of avian flu in Luzon, saying many buyers have cancelled orders for eggs and balut. EDD GUMBAN

MANILA, Philippines - The first bird flu outbreak in the country has spread to two towns in Nueva Ecija, with over 300,000 poultry heads now being readied for culling, according to the Department of Agriculture (DA).

In Manila, the health department said the contagion has not yet affected humans, but it has dispatched a team to Nueva Ecija to investigate the new outbreak, which was reported a week after it was confirmed in San Luis, Pampanga.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), an attached DA agency, confirmed the outbreak in Jaen and San Isidro.

“The confirmation was made after series of laboratory tests on specimens gathered from quail and layer chickens were conducted by the Animal Diseases Detection Laboratory,” Piñol said.

In a phone interview with The STAR, Piñol admitted that he received reports of chicken deaths in Nueva Ecija earlier this week but decided against making his discovery public in the meantime. 

“We actually did not want to create another cause of fear. We wanted to confine the attention to San Luis in Pampanga only. But it already came out so we can’t do anything about it,” he said.

Piñol was interviewed Thursday afternoon in Quezon City and was asked if there were other areas where the virus may have spread already. He maintained during the interview the disease was still confined in San Luis.

But yesterday morning, he confirmed the outbreak after The STAR reported that suspected bird flu cases in the province had been revealed by DA-BAI itself.

“Quarantine teams were immediately established even before the laboratory tests confirmed the presence of the virus,” he said.

The farm in Jaen lost all its quail. The farm in San Isidro is a layer poultry facility of about 20,000 heads.

As what was done in Pampanga, a one-kilometer “contained radius” and a seven-kilometer “controlled radius” have been established in the affected Nueva Ecija towns.

Culling operations have begun for the 300,000 other fowl within the one-kilometer radius.

Based on initial data, 200,000 quail, 28,000 layer chickens, 22,000 ducks and 57,000 native chickens would be culled within the one-kilometer radius.

The province of Nueva Ecija has an estimated poultry population of over six million poultry heads.

Clashing statements 

Piñol and Dr. Joy Lagayan of BAI’s animal disease control division actually issued conflicting statements on the situation.

Even after Piñol confirmed the outbreak, Lagayan maintained that it was still not a confirmed case as laboratory tests were still being done and that it would take about a week before results would be released.

“It’s not a confirmed case unless it is backed up by laboratory tests. It is confirmed that there are chicken deaths but it is not confirmed whether there is a presence of the virus in the area. The avian influenza strain is still under confirmatory test,” Lagayan told The STAR in a phone interview.

But Piñol himself said tests had already been done and confirmed by Agriculture Undersecretary for Livestock Enrico Garzon. Lagayan later backtracked and voiced her agreement with Piñol.

“I support whatever the secretary said, if he says that it’s confirmed and posted it online then we’ll back him up. For now, my commitment is with DA and I apologize if this led to confusion,” Lagayan said in a text message.

With the new outbreak, Piñol said the early lifting of the ban on the shipment of poultry products from Luzon to the Visayas and Mindanao would have to be delayed.

Piñol on Thursday said farmers may resume their shipment around the second week of September.

“We will have to reset the time clock again. We will be monitoring the case in the next 21 days. So another 21 days,” he said.

‘Heightened alert’

Despite assurance the avian flu contagion has not yet affected humans, the health department has gone on “heightened alert” in the face of the new outbreak.

“The situation now is that bird flu is in feathered animals, particularly chicken. We are closely monitoring the situation now,” Department of Health (DOH) spokesman Eric Tayag said in an ambush interview.

A team of experts from the DOH has been deployed to Nueva Ecija to help their DA counterparts investigate the outbreak, Tayag said.

He assured the public the avian flu outbreak, first reported in San Luis in Pampanga, remains to be “an animal health problem.”

“We hope that the public will not panic. We have not received any report of human infection. If they have question or doubts, or if they think there is a possible case in their area, they can call the DOH,” he said. 

“As long as you cook your chicken well, there is nothing to worry,” he pointed out.

He stressed though the DOH is not taking any chances as it is closely working with the DA to contain the disease.

Tayag said the main concern of the DOH is to make sure workers at affected poultry farms don’t get infected.

He added that workers involved in the culling of chickens are given Oseltamivir, an anti-viral drug.

Helping in the culling of chickens in affected areas in Pampanga are 303 soldiers from the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) who, as of yesterday, have destroyed 6,000 chickens and other fowl.

The soldiers were from the Nueva Ecija-based 7th Infantry Division and from composite military elements of Armed Forces of the Philippines-Peacekeeping Operation Center (AFPPKOC) in Tarlac.

“This activity manifests the commitment of Nolcom to respond, protect and secure the Filipinos in its area of responsibility, through inter-agency efforts,” Nolcom commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo said.

Lt . Col. Isagani Nato, Nolcom spokesman, said they completed culling 6,000 chickens by midnight Thursday.

Pigeons banned

Meanwhile, governors and other local leaders in Luzon have also agreed to ban in their areas the flight of racing and homing pigeons as a measure to curb the spread of the avian flu virus, on top of cockfighting ban.

Angeles City Mayor Edgardo Pamintuan, chairman of Central Luzon’s Regional Development Council (RDC) and president of the League of City Mayors of the Philippines (LCMP), said the agreement was reached in a meeting recently.

“I proposed that racing and homing pigeons be kept in their cages for at least two weeks, the same period proposed for the ban on cockfighting in Pampanga. And all agreed to come out with corresponding issuances in their areas,” Pamintuan said as he led in the feasting on fried chicken at a local market to demonstrate that cooked chicken was safe to eat.

Pamintuan noted that racing and homing pigeons could travel as far as 3,000 kilometers. “They could pass by areas infected by avian flu and spread the ailment,” he maintained.

Chicken meat vendors in Barangay Pampang in Angeles City said they were feeling the impact of the crisis on their sales, with many of them forced to close shop.

Yesterday, only 20 of 100 fresh chicken meat stalls at the city market opened for business. “No one is buying our chicken anymore,” said Miling Sunga, 70.

Vendor Ernesto Meneses, 57, said people even avoided passing near chicken stalls.

“They don’t only avoid buying chicken. They also avoid the areas near chicken stalls. We feel like lepers,” he said.

“I barbecued all the chicken I was selling, and it was just for my family,” he added.

Nelson Caranto, president of the Pampang Market Vendors Association, said he used to bring 10,000 heads of chicken per day to the city market, but the number was now down to only 2,000 heads.

“The cost of our chickens dropped from P130 per kilo to only P90 per kilo, but still, the customers are not there. We don’t know what to do anymore,” association vice president Baby Velasco said.

For the Samahang Industriya at Agrikultura (Sinag), Piñol may have had hidden agenda in some of his actions.

“There may be other agenda behind this. We support the efforts on quarantine protocol but with the way it is being handled, we begin to think what the real agenda is,” Sinag chairman Rosendo So said in an interview.

“Our concern is just with the solution being imposed. Why should the whole Luzon be affected? According to him [Piñol], they were able to contain the problem and that it is not transmissible to humans, and yet why affect the whole Luzon?” he added.

The local industry is also decrying the lack of coordination between the DA chief and concerned players.

“It’s been one week [since the outbreak]. He has not talked to us. Up to now, he has not talked to those who will be principally hit with his move,” said So.

He claimed Piñol has not reached out to industry groups such as Sinag, Philippine Egg Board and the United Broiler Raisers Association for any dialogue.

Philippine Coast Guard officer-in-charge Commodore Joel Garcia, for his part, directed all 12 PCG districts to strictly monitor seaports to prevent unauthorized transport of chicken and other fowl.

“In this connection, you are directed to be on the look-out of the unauthorized movement of live stocks particularly from Pampanga and/or Luzon area to Visayas and Mindanao,” said Garcia.

“However, the movement of fresh uncooked poultry meat must be accompanied by a shipping permit and health certificate issued by a government sector veterinarian certifying that such products were sourced from farms with no incident of avian influenza for the past 21 days prior shipment,” he added.  Sheila Crisostomo, Ding Cervantes, Evelyn Macairan, Jaime Laude, Michael Punongbayan

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