Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Flu Burung

First, I want to address a couple of safety concerns. I’m back in Jakarta now, but it’s true that I was deep inside an area with a history of H5N1 infection among birds and humans for the story. It’s also true that this is still a very rare disease among humans, and that when it is transmitted from birds to humans, it’s through close contact with sick birds. People who have contracted the virus have done so largely through handling them or being in an environment where their blood or dander can get into the respiratory system. I was very careful not to get too close to birds, and I wore an antibiotic mask and took other sanitation measures to keep myself from dangerous contact.

It’s also true that Jones Ginting is part of a cluster of people who contracted a mutated version of the virus from contact with each other. This is an extremely rare case, and scientists think genetic disposition in that family in combination with the mutation may have enabled the unusual vector. Ginting is not considered to be contagious, and the mutated version of the virus is considered to have died out with its last victim.

I understand some of the concerns I’m hearing from my family, and I just want to let everyone know I wasn’t reckless about exposure.

Having said that, I also have to add that I saw some frighteningly inefficient and unsanitary (not to mention inhumane) practices in the handling of the birds during mass culls, and it raises a lot of questions for me about the effectiveness of this strategy. But I’m ahead of myself.


The first night I arrived in Kaben Jahe, rumors were circulating that lab tests from five chickens in the area had come back positive for the H5N1 virus. When I arrived at the local health department command post, it was teeming with Indonesian soldiers, police and brown-uniformed medical staff. The driver I had hired from Medan slipped his black Toyota SUV into a parked convoy of military and government vehicles. We waited in the car for an hour while the police and soldiers mustered in formation, passing out protective masks and gloves.

Finally, the group spread out into five teams to cover the five affected areas. Their orders were to kill and collect every domestic bird in a one kilometer radius around the five positive test sites across the district. The birds were killed in the streets in front of their owners. It was brutal, inefficient, and unsanitary in my opinion. Children gathered to watch in curiosity, and came well within the risk area from what I saw. The whole affair was a real nightmare.