Subject: Porous border increases avian flu risks

TIMOR-LESTE: Porous border increases avian flu risks

Timor-Leste has managed to avoid a bird flu outbreak so far

DILI, 26 June 2008 (IRIN) - With little capacity to prevent avian flu from crossing the border from the neighbouring Indonesian region of West Timor, health officials are concerned about possible outbreaks.

To date, none has been reported in Timor-Leste, but health specialists say it is only a matter of time. "If it comes today, there is no chance we could do anything at all," Chana Opaskornkul, emergency coordinator of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Timor-Leste, told IRIN.

Three years have passed since avian flu first struck Indonesia, which has the highest incidence of the disease in the world. However, given its limited human resources, the Timorese government has been unable to prepare itself against a deadly threat most specialists believe will eventually arrive on its soil.

In a 2006 avian influenza outbreak, according to the Indonesian national news service, Antara, thousands of chickens died near Kupang, the major city in West Timor and capital of East Nusa Tenggara province in Indonesia. Kupang is only a day's drive from Timor-Leste.

Since 2005, Timor-Leste has banned all Indonesian chickens and by-products, including eggs. But the country of almost one million people, which gained its independence in 2002, shares a 228km border with West Timor. Only a handful of border posts exist and there is no fencing; black-market trading abounds in everything from oil to rice and petrol - and chickens.

Smuggling problem

"We have security patrols which go up and down the border, but the smugglers watch for the patrols and they know the schedules," said Paulo Ferreira, an inspection officer at the border patrol. "The smugglers are very clever."

One of the problems is the Timorese love cockfighting and smuggle their birds into the country, said border officials. "The cockfighting chickens are much cheaper in West Timor," Ferreira told IRIN. "Cockfighting is the biggest threat. Those birds could lead to an outbreak of disease."

A typical owner will spend hours in close contact with his birds, grooming them, weighing them, training them - even performing surgery on injured birds, Ferreira said. Such contact could spread the disease.

Outbreak preparedness

Avian influenza is a virulent disease with a high mortality rate in humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and nowhere is it higher than Indonesia. To date, human avian influenza has infected 133 people and killed 108. Indonesia's death rate is more than double that of Vietnam, which is second on a World Health Organization (WHO) list of confirmed bird flu deaths. 

Justo Rodriguez Lopez is an infectious disease doctor with the Cuban medical brigade in Timor-Leste. He and his colleagues have been trained in how to spot the disease and are handing out bird flu information at their clinics.

"All the clinics in the country have information for the people about the disease," Lopez said. "When people go in for a consultation, we give them the information."

Lopez said the national hospital in Dili, the capital, had an outbreak plan, but the hospitals and clinics closest to the border have made no specific plans or preparations for coping with the disease.

The best hope for Timor is a rigorous rural agricultural policy of early detection and culling of infected birds to prevent it from spreading to humans, according to FAO.

Communication breakdown

In rural Timor-Leste, communicating bird flu awareness information is a challenge. Parts of the country are still without telephone coverage and roads are perilous and transportation to Dili unreliable. Most farmers have no access to veterinary services, so chicken populations often die unnoticed. Farmers have no means of knowing the cause of death or the facilities to confirm the presence of avian flu. "In agriculture, there is no reporting, unlike the medical system," said FAO's Opaskornkul.

In 2007 the ministry of agriculture launched an awareness campaign about avian influenza and how to detect it, but it was limited because there is only one agent for each district. A year on, the campaign has only reached five out of 13 districts.

"We need to do more," said Opaskornkul, "and the government definitely needs to hire people to do more outreach."


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