Thai government takes heat for its handling of bird flu

An outbreak of bird flu that health authorities have connected to at least seven deaths in Vietnam and Thailand is raising questions over how governments in Southeast Asia balance public health concerns with pro-growth economic policies.

One year after China's secretive bureaucracy was criticized for its handling of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Asian health officials are again facing a potential epidemic - and growing political fallout in Thailand and Indonesia - over claims that the public should have been notified sooner.

Until Friday, Thailand had denied that avian flu was behind thousands of fowl deaths that farmers say started in November, around the same time that flu cases were discovered elsewhere in Asia. Initially, agriculture officials here insisted that cholera had stricken chickens and ordered farmers to dispose of infected chickens. Reports of people hospitalized with severe respiratory problems were dismissed as rumors spread by rival chicken producing countries. Thailand is the world's fourth largest chicken exporter, shipping $1.3 billion worth last year.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said it had been suspected "for a few weeks" that avian flu was to blame but he hadn't wanted to alarm the public until it could be confirmed. He also promised compensation for chicken farmers and vowed to end the crisis in a month. Thailand has called for an international meeting of health and agriculture ministers Wednesday.

"This government seems to have an automatic response. If it's bad news, then we don't have it," says Thitinan Pongsuhdirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "But with problems like SARS and bird flu, it's not so easy to contain. The effort to hide it ultimately boomerangs."

On the other hand, some government and media outlets were also criticized for over-dramatizing the SARS risk last year.

Health officials suspect that the victims came into contact with infected fowl, either farm poultry or wild birds. They say there is no evidence the virus is being passed to people eating cooked chicken or eggs.

On Sunday, Indonesia became the seventh Asian country to confirm an outbreak of the avian influenza. The Jakarta Post reported that politically connected businessmen may have initially covered up the outbreak. Health officials say a less virulent form of bird flu was detected in Pakistan Monday, where 2 million birds have died (equivalent to a normal week's worth of chicken consumed in the city of Karachi) since November. A strain of the bird flu first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. Six people died before that outbreak was contained through a mass three-day slaughter of birds in the territory.

Thailand's Army has now joined a massive cull of chickens. At least nine million chickens have been slaughtered since November. But these efforts are accompanied by a rising domestic outcry over the Thai government's handling of the outbreak. Opposition politicians are calling for an independent enquiry into whether Thai officials were culpable in hiding the avian flu outbreak. "We need to know how much was known and when, then we can take action," said Abhisit Vejjajiva, deputy leader of the Democrat Party.

Farmers and consumer advocates say the government was more anxious to keep the country's poultry trade running than admitting that the disease had infected its flocks. Last week, Japan and the European Union, which buy more than 80 percent of Thai poultry exports, halted imports from Thailand.

Prime Minister Shinawatra has won praise in Asia for his economic leadership and deft diplomatic touch. But critics at home say his focus on economic growth and media spin has sidelined dissenting voices and added to the current crisis. Last week, Shinawatra invited local television to film his cabinet eating chicken for lunch. "Look! I am eating and swallowing a piece of grilled chicken. It's completely safe," he told reporters. The same day, a poultry industry group promised to pay 1 million baht (about $25,575) to anyone in Thailand who died after eating chicken.

"The government's mishandling of the bird flu epidemic has given us a costly lesson - not just about people's lives and economics, but also about democracy," said the Nation newspaper in an editorial. "In an authoritarian regime, officials and leaders do not suffer the consequences of their mistakes. In a democracy, our leaders should pay the same penalty as the public and the farmers."

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