MANILA, Philippines - Who would have thought that ducks played such a major role in the scare called the avian influenza virus?
The Bird Flu Task Force of the Department of Agriculture (DA) has tagged locally-bred ducks as powerful potential carriers of the H5N1 virus, more commonly known as the Bird Flu.
Ducks, explains Dr. Romeo Manalili of the Department of Agriculture, can acquire bird flu by simple contact with other infected birds, or even by grazing on the same areas that an infected bird has been.
They can consequently pass the virus on to other birds they interact with, as well as to their human caretakers, setting of a succession of infection.
And to add further complication, ducks carrying the bird flu will not manifest any symptoms that could possibly alert experts and breeders alike.
This poses a problem for areas where ducks are able to interact with migratory birds, which are also potential carriers of the bird flu from other countries.
Grazing areas in Candaba
Such is the case in Candaba, Pampanga, where duck breeding is one of the major sources of livelihood, and where thousands of migratory birds share common grazing areas with these free-ranging ducks.
Dr. Manalili says, "Here in Candaba, roaming ducks graze in rice fields everywhere. If these ducks come into contact with infected birds, the virus transfers to them. If they interact with chickens, again the virus is passed, and the chickens die. And if people even touch these chickens, or inhale the virus, or even come into contact with infected ducks, then the bird flu will reach the people."
This risky combination of elements has led the Bird Flu Task Force of Region 3 to conduct bi-annual visits to duck farms all over the region, particularly in Candaba, in Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija, and Puerto Rivas in Bataan, where duck and migratory bird interaction is high.
Composed of doctors and livestock inspectors, these teams take blood samples and stool swabs from ducks.
Should the bird flu finally land in the Philippines, it will find itself in the ducks first, says Dr. Manalili.
The screenings will not only reveal the first signs of bird flu, it will also give authorities the chance to nip the virus at the bud.
DA clearance good for business
Duck raisers in Candaba don't seem to mind, since clearance from the DA is becoming good for business.
"I get my ducks screened yearly," says duck raiser Emelsom Manio. "It's good to make sure that none of them are sick, since fried duck is a delicacy in my hometown."
The Bird Flu Task force conducts zero-surveillance or screenings on ducks at the start and at the end of the migratory season, from August until March.
They also gather fresh feces from these migratory birds for testing, since the law forbids anyone from catching migratory birds without a permit.
Dr. Manalili, however, reiterates that there has been no indication of bird flu landing in the Philippines thus far.
But, he urges the people to help them in the fight against H5N1, by observing unusual behavior in one's own ducks, chickens, or birds.
"If there is an unusual death, or if the birds start display strange behavior, report it to us immediately. Time is of the essence here. This is a virus we're facing. If we are unable to detect it soon enough, it could very well spread beyond our control."