Boosting food security, battling bird flu in Asia

February 08, 2012
Ecosystems and Human Health

Researchers with the Asian Partnership on Emerging Infectious Disease Research (APEIR) have confirmed the importance of backyard poultry to national food security in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. They also found that organizing at the village level has a role to play in preventing the spread of avian influenza (AI).

Funded by IDRC’s Ecohealth program since 2005, APEIR has taken an integrated approach to AI prevention and control.  One project set out to understand the role of small-scale producers in the prevention and control of avian flu in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam

Understanding backyard poultry production

Researchers confirmed that small-scale poultry production is extremely common in these five countries. Poultry, communities, nutrition, and markets are intertwined. In Thailand, 90% of the farmers raise poultry, and overall 6 million households have birds in their backyards. In Vietnam, approximately half of the households keep about 75% of the country’s poultry. 

Most backyard poultry is raised using traditional methods. Small flocks of native breeds (less than 10 hens/flock) scavenge around houses. Poultry often mixes with other domestic animals such as goats, sheep or cattle. Bird pens are rare and there is a high risk that disease-causing pathogens can move between and among animals and humans (the overall biosecurity is low). 

Variations do exist in and among countries. Some owners eat all their animals while others also raise poultry to sell, as entertainment or as a gift. The types of fences and feeds vary as do the types of animals kept with poultry. These differences can depend on wealth, traditions, and geography and are important to know for disease prevention.

An important source of food

The research found that in most of these countries, families raise poultry primarily for their own use. Considering the high number of families involved, backyard poultry-raising is a critical source of food. In addition, at least some of the animals are sold in Vietnam, Cambodia, parts of China, and Indonesia. In Thailand, poultry is kept mostly for the family’s consumption or to give as a gift.

Farmers can get high prices for their backyard poultry — consumers prefer local varieties and "traditionally-raised" birds are often in short supply. Poorer households depend more on poultry for cash, with the relative importance of the animals as the source of income changing from region to region.

Backyard poultry farming in VietnamMeeting the needs of small-scale producers for safer poultry raising 

The national teams looked for production improvements that best suited their communities and helped most with avian flu risks. The new in-depth understanding of backyard poultry owners’ realities helped identify the appropriate  interventions.

  • Thai researchers encouraged students to use art to express their knowledge of bird flu through a school essay competition.
  • In Vietnam, training courses, village meetings, and school activities reached out to people new to avian flu prevention programs. 
  • Chinese researchers built up community-level surveillance and response. They fostered cooperation between poultry farmers, village pandemic prevention staff, the women’s federation, and provincial officials. 
  • In Indonesia, research helped communications between village leaders and animal health officers. Twenty-five animal health officers from 10 villages also participated in an Ecohealth Training of Trainers workshop.  
  • In Cambodia, villagers, farmers, and traders can now buy and sell poultry in poultry trading corners with the help of a village animal health worker. Traders normally go from house to house, ferrying birds on their motorbikes. Trading at the designated “corners” reduced the movement of potentially infected bikes and chickens in and among villages. The farmers also found that trading in one place strengthened their bargaining position as they had more market information.

In all five countries, researchers found that men and women have different knowledge of avian influenza and raise poultry differently. Though women are typically responsible for rearing backyard poultry, they are often left out of training sessions. Educational barriers, time constraints, and predominantly male veterinarians and officials may all contribute to this exclusion. In response to these realities, the project teams sought out women to train in hygienic production techniques.

Backyard poultry producers can lower their avian flu risks

As a result of the research, most of the participating backyard producers built pens for their birds away from their homes. Hygiene improved, more poultry were vaccinated, and fewer sick animals were sold. The results confirmed that organizing at the village level to help poultry owners is critical for long-term success in preventing avian influenza. Supporting owners also maintains local food sources and livelihoods. Still, small yards, lack of funds and the need to protect animals prevent many from improving their poultry-raising practices. Working together, farmers and local officials can select the bird flu prevention methods that are most appropriate, feasible, and ultimately acceptable for their communities.  

Diverse Ecohealth teams

The multi-country and interdisciplinary project team combined veterinarians, public health specialists, agricultural scientists, and social scientists with expertise in rural development and community participation. The partners included:

  • Ubon Ratchathani University and Sirindhorn Public Health College, Thailand
  • Centre for Livestock and Agriculture Development (CelAgrid), Cambodia
  • National Institute of Animal Science, Vietnam
  • Nanjing Agricultural University, China
  • Indonesian Research Institute for Veterinary Science

Read APEIR’s website for updates or listen to a short audio presentation by the Thai team

Photo (right): Cuong et al.
When workers wear protective masks and the chickens are separated, biosecurity is improved in Vietnam.