Sick Chicken

The other day, in a tiny Lave tribal village, we asked whether the people knew about bird flu.

“Oh yes,” a woman who runs the village restaurant told us. “All of our chickens died last month. It happens every year.”

“Really?!?” we asked. “What have you done with the dead birds?”

“We ate them.”


So there you go. This little exchange was, of course, interesting on all sorts of levels. We learned from our guide, Mr. Big, that many villages in southern Laos experience something similar on an annual basis. One day, suddenly, all the chickens are dead. Mr. Big isn’t sure it’s bird flu, but it could be. Whatever the cause, many Laotians have come to expect the routine demise of their birds. What else would they do, but eat them? They can’t let so much meat go to waste! Mr. Big, however, recalled one year when so many chickens had died they couldn’d possibly eat them all. The grounds were littered with dead birds, and people grew sick from the flies and rodents that fed upon the carnage.

Our conversation raised another issue as well: My mother recently asked me whether it’s possible to catch bird flu by eating contaminated chickens; she didn’t know, based on the coverage she had read and heard in the United States. The answer is no. Properly cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat. That fact is widely known and repeated in Asia (at least in urban areas). Here in Thailand, it’s hard to gauge the American media’s coverage of bird flu on the whole. But there do seem to be many misconceptions and perhaps a bit of inflated fear. I told my mother that most human cases of bird flu have occurred in children who played with dead chickens and people who handled sick or dead birds. You can read more about the particulars on the CDC website.

4 thoughts on “Sick Chicken

  1. Hi there
    From what I have read in the past year (is that how long this has been a big news story now??) about bird flu, avian flu has been around probably as long as the birds. What makes this flu strain (H5N1) different is its virulence and its apparent ability to jump hosts. It’s interesting that the people there notice this happens every year. I wonder if they’ve noticed that it occurs with incoming migrating birds from other places, and or changes in temperature or precip, or maybe a combo of all of the above! I’m sure someone somewhere has decided this is something worth while to study. Anyway, my original thought was that bird flu has been around a long time and cycles through bird populations in much the same way as flu cycles through human populations. Most of the time the bird flu won’t affect other species, but viruses are oppoutunistic and good at mutating to stick around. In this way it is not uncommon for other species over time to become infected with a strain that originated in birds or another species. From what I understand most strains of flu that affect humans have started out with birds and or swine. Basically farm animals that people have been in close contact with for over 10-15,000 years (at least).
    Ok, all done! Very interesting story!

  2. You’re a fount of information!

    The folks we talked to in rural Laos said the annual chicken fatalities occur after the monsoon rains start, so perhaps weather does have something to do with it. On the other hand, bird flu in urban and more populated areas seems to occur at any time of year. But these are areas with large groupings of chickens and/or ducks, often in close quarters.

    Last year, when we visited the Prek Toal core area of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve (a VERY cool place… a seasonally flooded forest whose water level changes 30 feet each year; it has some of the largest populations of endangered birds in the world) scientists were worried about chickens and ducks from the nearby villages spreading bird flu to the wild nesting birds in Prek Toal. So far, though, no birds in the area have shown any signs of flu.

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