The end of backyard poultry | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 17, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 17, 2008

The end of backyard poultry

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OUTBREAKS of bird flu (Avian influenza H5N1) in Bangladesh and West Bengal are continuing. Most families living in rural Bengal own chickens which roam freely around their backyards and courtyards. It is no secret that backyard chickens are particularly vulnerable to the bird flu virus.
The bird flu virus kills infected chickens very quickly. However, wild birds and ducks can carry the virus without becoming sick at all; this enables them to spread it over a wide area. Wild birds and ducks form a "reservoir" of bird flu virus; even after all the infected chickens in Bangladesh die or are culled by DLS (the government's livestock service), new outbreaks of bird flu will occur whenever chickens are infected through contact with wild birds or ducks.
Which chickens are likely to be infected? The answer is obvious. Farm chickens are enclosed in sheds, and are somewhat isolated from contact with wild birds and domestic ducks. Free-ranging backyard chickens, on the other hand, are not enclosed in sheds and are continuously in contact with wild birds and ducks.
For many years NGOs and the Livestock Service have encouraged rural households to raise backyard chickens in order to supplement their income and their access to protein. This encouragement is now dangerous. Backyard chickens live in very close proximity to their owners. When these chickens become infected with bird flu, their owners are in serious danger of infection.
It is time for NGOs and the Livestock Service to recognise the risk inherent in backyard chicken rearing. Rural families should no longer be advised to raise free-ranging backyard chickens. They should be advised to keep their chickens enclosed in a shed to protect them from contact with wild birds and ducks. Families should also be advised to raise either chickens or ducks but not both, as even healthy ducks may carry the bird flu virus and spread it to chickens.
Chickens enclosed in a shed require feed (as they cannot forage to feed themselves). Proponents of backyard chicken rearing point out that the popularity of backyard chicken rearing rests on the fact that it requires no expenditure on feed. They say that the rural poor who rear backyard chickens cannot afford feed.
There is some logic in this argument. But it is also true that constant contact between backyard chickens and wild birds means that it is only a matter of time before all the backyard chickens in Bangladesh become infected with avian influenza. Most of them will die soon after infection; some will survive infection but may infect their owners in turn.
Backyard chicken rearing will either be ended by enclosing the chickens in sheds (to protect them from bird flu) or it will end when bird flu has killed most of the backyard chickens. Backyard poultry rearers who have the capacity to enclose their chickens in a shed should be encouraged to do so. This will protect both the investment (in chickens) and their family's health.

Zahin Hasan is the owner of a poultry breeding farm.

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