JAKARTA - Caswali has sold live chickens in a crowded traditional market in the Indonesian capital for over 10 years, but he has never been given any information on how to prevent bird flu.
A worker is seen collecting chickens in a barn in central Jakarta in this July 20, 2006 file photo. Bird flu may be endemic in poultry in most parts of Indonesia, but experts say public ignorance, official ineptitude and lack of funds are to blame for the mounting human deaths from the virus in the sprawling archipelago. [Reuters]
"I've only heard of bird flu from the news on television. But I'm not afraid as my chickens are healthy. I and hundreds of chicken traders I know have never been infected by bird flu," said the 47-year-old as he slaughtered a live chicken.
"Everybody's life or death has been pre-ordained by Allah."
Bird flu may be endemic in poultry in most parts of Indonesia, but experts say public ignorance, official ineptitude and lack of funds are to blame for the mounting human deaths from the virus in the sprawling archipelago.
Indonesia has so far recorded 46 bird flu deaths, the highest in the world, but stamping out the virus is a tough job in the country of 220 million where keeping chickens, ducks and geese is a way of life and allowing the animals to roam freely natural.
Indonesia has launched a campaign to spread awareness about bird flu and has opted for selective culling, but Lo Wing-lok, an infectious disease expert in Hong Kong, said Indonesia's sprawling geography and public ignorance meant controlling the disease was an uphill battle.
"It is very difficult to get people to cooperate, some don't believe that bird flu is really serious, some delay treatment because they don't want to get stigmatised, some are even thinking of suing the government."
The problem was highlighted when an Indonesian teenager refused to be hospitalised this month despite testing positive for bird flu and in another case three ministers visiting a bird-flu stricken district were jostled by villagers who tried to rip off their protective masks.
Some farmers accuse the government of spreading rumours about bird flu to obtain foreign money and have protested by eating raw chicken meat.
Unlike in countries like Vietnam, culling poultry is not easy in Indonesia either because of fierce opposition from farmers and the logistical difficulties with millions of backyard fowl.
Farmers oppose culling because of the low compensation they get for their birds. A full-grown chicken costs 35,000 rupiah in Jakarta, but the government only offers between 10,000-12,500 for each culled fowl.
Although bird flu remains essentially an animal disease, experts fear it could mutate into a form that can pass easily among humans, killing millions.
New fears that the virus had mutated into a form that can easily pass between humans arose this month after a series of confirmed or suspected cases in West Java's remote Cikelet village, where bird flu is rife in poultry.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said there is no evidence that human-to-human transmission has occurred in the area, but experts say what is most worrying is how human cases are often shrouded in mystery with officials unable to say whether the virus is in the environment or how widely it has spread -- which means H5N1 outbreaks in poultry essentially go uncontrolled.
Marthen Malelo, a virologist at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, said the government's initial response to the bird flu outbreak was sluggish.
"Because the government's action was tardy, bird flu is now out of control. It's now widespread and we don't have enough vaccines to carry out a massive vaccination drive," said Malelo, who first discovered bird flu in poultry in Indonesia.
The government has defended its efforts, saying it had killed almost 29 million chickens, vaccinated 268 million others and spent about $50 million despite financial constraints.
Indonesia has not received "a single cent" from $1.9 billion pledged by international donors at a conference in Beijing in January, Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie said this month.
Experts say the government, which has allocated $57.4 million this year to stamp out the bird flu virus, should set aside more funds to compensate farmers whose poultry is culled.
Most donor funds are focused on preventing bird flu in humans and no resources are allocated for procurement of vaccines and compensation for farmers whose poultry is culled, said Louise F. Scura, World Development Sector Coordinator at the World Bank.
"As long as the bird flu virus is circulating in poultry, we will continue to have sporadic human cases. And to detect outbreaks in poultry, we need to have resources to vaccinate and cull," Scura said.
"Vaccinating 10 percent of your poultry isn't going to help. And we can't expect farmers to voluntarily have their chickens culled without compensation," Scura told reporters.