CITY OF SAN FERNANDO — The Philippines had always been proud of its avian flu-free status and for the longest time, in almost 20 years, the country had managed to remain isolated from the virus while its Asian neighbors where scrambling to contain the virus that had devastated poultry industries in their respective areas.

And while avian influenza outbreaks have since spread to 15 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the Philippines remained avian flu-free, but all that ended last August 11 when Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol announced the country was no longer avian flu-free.

Some 37,000 birds have died from avian influenza subtype H5 in what has been declared as the first bird flu outbreak in the country.

The deaths were recorded in six farms in rural San Luis town. The town is mainly an agricultural municipality with poultry and livestock raising as other major industries.

Piñol made the announcement in the City of San Fernando where Governor Lilia Pineda also immediately declared the whole province under a state of calamity to enable immediate quarantine response.

A kilometer radius quarantine area was imposed around the farms affected with orders to cull all chicken, ducks, quail, and even game fowl. A seven-kilometer radius around San Luis town was also designated as controlled area where no poultry products would be allowed to move out for shipment.

How it happened

A Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) report said that the poultry farms experienced a large number of deaths of their poultry stocks as early as April in Barangay San Carlos. But there were no reports filed as farms there were “accustomed” to keeping such incidents on a low note.

But deaths on the poultry stocks continued until the months leading to August that some owners began to seek government help. It was then when independent tests ran by the BAI, University of the Philippines at Los Baños and a big commercial poultry company confirmed that it was indeed an H5 strain of bird flu.

But it was not yet clear which H5 subtype the infected birds carried as of press time. Subtypes like H5N1 and H5N7 have been known to affect humans with fatal results.

“Although samples for confirmatory tests were sent to Australia, none of the farm workers and residents of San Luis living near the area where the outbreak was recorded since April of this year have not shown any signs of illness,” Piñol said.

The BAI report added that the infection started in a farm that hosted mix species of fowl. The ducks in the said farm began to die first followed by the quails which were raised nearby. Soon the deaths were also recorded with the chicken stocks.

The cause of the transmission is still inconclusive but BAI and DA officials have suspicions that the spread may have come from migratory birds or from smuggled poultry products.

Another possible angle is that farm workers may have hunted for wild migratory birds in the area for food and unintentionally introduced the virus into the farms.

Avian Influenza

It is not yet clear which H5 subtype that infected the birds in San Luis but the Department of Health (DOH) and the agriculture officials are not putting their guard down until the confirmatory tests from Australia are made available.

Their precaution and strict bans are understandable since certain subtypes of the virus like H5N1 can affect humans. The World Health Organization has monitored 453 human deaths from 859 cases of avian influenza since 2000, with Asia accounting for 41 percent of all cases.

Studies show that persons infected with avian influenza are relatively few, compared to seasonal human flu; the percentage of people who die from HPAI H5N1 is very high at almost half of the people infected.

Currently, the DOH said that there is still no case of poultry-to-human contamination of the virus.

Health Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag said human contraction of the virus is rare as only those who handle infected birds may be susceptible.

But the DOH is asking residents near the infected areas to seek medical attention if they experience flu symptoms for more than 3 days.

If there is actual human contamination, this may cause diseases such as mild conjunctivitis or swelling of the eyes, severe pneumonia and even death. Interaction with humans infected with the flu, however, does not result in “efficient transmission” between people.

The World Health Organization also clarified that there is no evidence that the avian flu can be acquired by eating properly cooked eggs or poultry.

Ground Zero

Residents of Barangay San Carlos were surprised when quarantine officers swooped into the village on August 11 and 12.

The quarantine teams from BAI were to cull at least 200,000 fowls with the number of birds that would have to be killed could reach 500,000. These include chicken, ducks, quails, pigeons and fighting roosters in areas affected by the outbreak. Poultry raisers may avail of the P80 compensation for every culled duck or chicken.

The culling is within the one-kilometer quarantine zone that covers Barangays San Carlos and Santa Rita in San Luis town almost half of its barangays; Santa Maria and San Isidro Laug in Mexico town; and San Pedro in San Simon town.

The seven-kilometer controlled zone is even bigger. Here no poultry products and even domestic fowl would be allowed to leave until proper tests are conducted and the ban has been lifted by BAI.

The controlled area covers some barangays of the City of San Fernando, Santo Tomas, Apalit, Candaba, Mexico and Santa Ana.

The population of poultry stocks in the one-kilometer quarantine zone is at 126,000 while the seven kilometer controlled zone has some 405,340 stocks. Not accounted for are the range chickens in various households, gaming pigeons, and dozens of backyard and commercial game fowl ranches.

The BAI report noted that some farms have mixed raising ducks and quails in close proximity. It was the ducks and quails that died first during the spread of the infection.

The BAI will also be making tests in farms under the seven-kilometer controlled zones. These include other farms in San Luis, Santa Ana, San Simon and Mexico towns to determine if the infection has not spread to the said areas.

Some 16,000 were culled in the first two days but limited manpower and the sheer difficulty of working in the hot poultry farms while wearing quarantine suits had prompted the BAI to extend the culling process until six days.Under the culling process, stocks are put inside sacks and sprayed with carbon monoxide before being buried in pits.

The total process of cleaning and testing of sentinel stocks to confirm if the farms are already bird flu-free could take around 90 to 120 days. This means that poultry raising in San Luis and those in the one-kilometer area would have to wait a little while longer.

Poultry industry halts

The Department of Agriculture (DA) assistant secretary for livestock Enrico Garzon also immediately issued a circular to temporarily ban the movement of wild and domestic birds and other poultry products to curtail the spread of virus.

The memo stated that there will be no movement of live wild and domestic birds, as well as other poultry products from Luzon to Visayas and Mindanao.

Within three days, other municipalities and provinces near Pampanga have set up their own quarantine checkpoints.

But the memo had been interpreted by local executives to be a ban on all Pampanga poultry products, probably due to overzealousness and even the practical reason of keeping their own areas safe.

Poultry raisers said that their buyers from as far as Ilocos Region have been prevented by the quarantine inspections set up by various municipalities and provinces from accessing supplies even if these are outside the seven-kilometer controlled zone.

Sales in markets in Guagua, one of the province's biggest public markets have been very slow as of press time. The same is true with sales in Angeles City, where some sellers have cut into half their regular supply orders.

In the City of San Fernando, some chicken stalls closed early on Saturday until Tuesday due to poor sales, where vendors associations reported drop in sales from the average 250 heads to just 50 heads per trader.

In Candaba's Tagalog Region barangays, which are the closest to Bulacan, supplies have already been prevented from entering Bulacan markets according to local growers. In Bahay Pari, chicken is no longer sold by the kilo but per head at P80 to P100.

Within three days the supply lines of poultry from Pampanga have been disrupted as poultry products were not allowed entry to other areas and provinces even if these originated from areas outside the one-kilometer quarantine and seven-kilometer controlled zones.

In Abra province, Executive Order 13-2017 was issued on August 13 banning winged animals, poultry, day-old chicks, eggs and even chicken manure from Pampanga. At least two big suppliers from Pampanga were affected by the move.

Bataan province, which is very near Pampanga, was also affected by drastic drop in chicken sales.

Even raisers in Batangas province in Southern Tagalog, Pampanga’s rival in egg production, worry of possible decline in egg demand. San Jose, Batangas alone produces seven million eggs everyday from 350 chicken farms.

The BAI had to reissue its memo to clarify the ban. The BAI on August 14, clarified its ban amending the provision of allowing movement of poultry products from Pampanga provided these are outside the seven-kilometer controlled zone but only in Luzon.

BAI also urged poultry raisers to secure health clearances and shipping permits for their products. Most small cottage poultry raisers also have a difficulty of obtaining clearances from veterinarians as most of them do not have in-house veterinarians in their farms.

It was also found out that majority of the agricultural towns in Pampanga do not have municipal veterinarians despite fact that they have poultry and livestock industries. The government post of municipal veterinarian is an optional position under the Local Government Code.

Billion peso industry

The chicken industry in the Philippines is a P100 billion industry with an estimated 800 million broilers per year. Not included here are the thriving duck and quail industries in Pampanga and other parts of Central Luzon.

According to the data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in its Chicken Industry Performance Report for 2016, total volume of chicken production in January-June 2016 was 817,822 metric tons.

Chicken egg production for the first half of the year was estimated at 232,543 metric tons.

The PSA report said that Central Luzon Region had the highest broiler inventory with a total share of 30.58 percent in the country’s total broiler inventory. Calabarzon Region shared 14.35 percent and Northern Mindanao Region, at 13.23 percent.

These three regions contributed 58.17 percent to the country’s total broiler inventory.

The top three regions in terms of layer inventory were Calabarzon with 35.80 percent share, Central Luzon with 24.34 percent share and Northern Mindanao with 10.13 percent share.

The inventory of the top three regions comprised 70.27 percent of the country’s total layer headcount, the PSA report added.

However, the Luzon regions, Central Luzon and Calabarzon are affected by the BAI poultry ban as supplies from Luzon are not allowed to be shipped to Visayas and Mindanao.

This means that supplies from Central Luzon and Calabarzon will not be able to reach regular markets in the other parts of the country even while they are not part of the quarantine and controlled areas near the affected farms.

Pampangas’ entire chicken stock population is currently at 3,015,080.

Duck eggs too

People the Visayas and Mindanao areas would have to make do without their regular supply of "balut" (fertilized duck egg) and duck eggs from Luzon.

Candaba town, Pampanga’s number one egg producer, has been experiencing an average of P8-million daily loses in sales due to the ban imposed by the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) on poultry products coming from Luzon.

Balut from Candaba is mainly supplied to Visayas and Mindanao.

Candaba Mayor Danilo Baylon said that the town’s duck industry is mainly a backyard industry and many of the families and farm workers depend on sales from shipments to Visayas and Mindanao.

Candaba produces some 1.7-million duck eggs that are supplied to sellers outside of Luzon. The problem now, according to local officials, is that the ban had virtually stopped the industry and placed potential revenue on a halt.

“We cannot tell the ducks to stop laying eggs. There is supply but nowhere to sell the eggs,” Baylon said. Local officials also worry of spoilage from unsold eggs and the accompanying risk of disposal.

There are even cases were some sellers are returning their supplies. The Municipal Government of Candaba had earlier filed a resolution asking the BAI to reconsider its ban for poultry products to be shipped out of Luzon adding that there should be consideration for areas which are not affected by the avian flu outbreak.

Candaba town’s duck industries are not within the quarantine or controlled areas.

But the DA said that the ban for products in Luzon to Visayas and Mindanao is a necessary step in protecting the whole poultry industry in the country.

“"Humihingi kami ng pang-unawa dahil this is a matter of survival of the poultry industry of the Philippines. Kapag ito ay kumalat sa buong Pilipinas, hindi na tayo makakapagexport," Piñol said.

Support from the Agriculture Department

“With God's grace, things will be back to normal in three months and the Agriculture Department will help affected farmers get back on their feet again with calamity assistance and low interest loans,” Piñol said.

The Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC), the credit agency of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, has readied an initial loan amount of P50-million to be extended to some 2,000 farmers in San Luis town and other neighboring areas in Pampanga whose poultry farms were hit by the Avian Influenza, he added.

Each farming family will be entitled to a P25,000 loan package under the Survival and Recovery (SURE) Loaning Program for farmers and fisher folks affected by natural and man-made calamity.

Of the amount, P5,000 will be given as a grant while the remaining P20,000 will be a no-collateral and no-interest loan payable in two years.

“In addition to the loan and compensation, Calamity Fund Assistance and a bigger loan package are also being prepared so that the affected farmers could start anew after the area has been declared to be free of the presence of the Bird Flu virus,” Piñol.

Pampanga officials are also extending every possible support but Gov. Lilia Pineda said that poultry raisers would surely feel the heavy effect of the outbreak on their investments. She added that measures being implemented are for the safety of the people and survival of the overall poultry industry.

“Don’t lose hope. I know Kapampangans are resilient. We can overcome this,” Governor Pineda said.