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Vietnam working to dispose of flocks

Associated Press

TRAN PHU, Vietnam -- Stepping into a cramped coop, Pham Tuyet Anh grabbed a squawking chicken with a gloved hand and stuffed it inside a burlap bag soon filled with 15 other chickens. Dragging the bag down a dirt street to a collection point, Anh threw it beside a pile of other squirming sacks.

A veterinary officer for the commune of Tran Phu on the outskirts of the capital, Anh is on the front lines of Vietnam's ambitious plan to purge the country's two biggest cities -- Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi -- of all live poultry by this week to slow the spread of bird flu before winter, when the virus has typically been deadliest.

"Everyone is cooperating," said Anh, clad in a blue surgical gown, gloves, mask, and a hairnet. "They understand that the public's health is more important."

Vietnam has been struggling to contain the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed at least 64 people in Southeast Asia since 2003, most of them in Vietnam. Millions of birds have died or been slaughtered as the virus spread from Asia to Europe.

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International health experts have warned the bird flu virus could mutate into a form easily spread among humans, igniting a global pandemic. So far, most human cases have been traced to contact with infected birds.

Vietnam has gotten increasingly tough with its measures against bird flu as the world's attention has turned to Asia, where millions of backyard farms allow poultry and people to easily mingle.

In the capital of Hanoi, animal health workers have been going door to door in the city's nine urban districts to search for live poultry, registering owners' names and how many birds they have.

This week, all poultry owners are required to bring their chickens, ducks and geese to an ad hoc collection point, where they will be bundled into trucks and sent off to be destroyed.

The government is paying $1 per bird -- about half the market price for a chicken and ducks and only a fraction of what geese are worth.

For farmers faced with a ban on poultry sales in the city and the new directive to destroy their poultry or face an undetermined fine, there is little choice.

Clutching two burlap sacks full of squealing chickens, a barefoot Luong Van Thanh walked up the dirt road and reluctantly turned over his bounty to animal health officers, who threw them on a pile of other rustling bags.

"I would sell them but no one dares eat it. Before, I could get 30,000 dong ($2) for one but now we have to accept the government's instruction on this," said Thanh, 51, who turned over all of his 50 chickens.

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All morning, animal health workers, clad in rubber boots and surgical scrubs, received bag after bag of poultry. More than 14,000 poultry have already been collected and destroyed in the commune, Anh said.

Throughout the day, public loudspeakers reminded residents to surrender their poultry. In small neighborhood outdoor markets, prices for beef, pork and seafood had risen as much as 10 percent with no chicken or eggs available, according to local media reports.

For the most part, villagers like Nguyen Ba Tich seemed resigned to the hardships of losing poultry that help supplement their often meager incomes.

Carrying his 70 geese on a traditional "ganh," a wooden pole slung over his shoulders with bags tied at both ends, Tich, 58, said his birds could have sold for $450 during the Lunar New Year, or Tet. But instead they brought about $66.

"Of course it will be difficult for my family," he said. "We were planning to sell these geese for Tet. But what else can we do? We must sacrifice."

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