Lim Tri, a 26-year-old university student, waited for a fruit shake on a recent evening along a stream in Battambang town. The frozen dessert usually calls for the addition of a raw egg, which gives the shake texture and, some believe, provides a power boost. Lim Tri, however, didn’t dare put a raw egg in his shake. He’s afraid of bird flu.
“I watch TV every day,” he said. “They publicize information about the H5N1 virus. So I don’t eat raw eggs, because they can affect us.”
Preparing a fruit shake nearby, proprietess Chhan Mom said now most of her customers follow Lim Tri’s habits.
“Some nights I don’t sell even a single egg,” Chhan Mom said.
The H5N1 virus has killed seven Cambodians since outbreaks began in 2003. One man fell ill and recovered from the disease, which is typically carried in birds, in Kandal province in November, renewing fears of the disease.
Even though bird flu has never broken out in Battambang province, people here fear the disease, avoiding eggs and poultry, in large part due to an informational campaign by local health officials. Health experts worry the disease could mutate to be spread from human to human, leading to a pandemic.
Fear of the disease has meant businesses here have been forced to cut back their operations, or even stop production.
Herding his ducks along a rice field in Or Mal commune, Battambang district, egg farmer Or Rith, 49, complained about a drop in demand in his business: he now only raises 2,000 ducks, compared to 3,000 last year.
“I lost $4,000 last year, but I still raise eggs, based on my fortunes,” Or Rith said.
About 5 kilometers down the road, chicken farmer Hem Seak, 52, sat near a recently emptied hen house. He said he decided to stop chicken farming because he was losing too much money.
“I raised eggs for a long time, but this is the first time that I lost,” he said. “Seeing that the market situation is not good, I stopped this business. People nearby doing the same thing as me have gone bankrupt and sold their cars to pay debt.”
According to the local Ministry of Agriculture veterinary office, the number of large-scale poultry farms decreased from 152 in the province in 2007 to 136 last year.
However, the director of the provincial agriculture department, Cheam Chan Sophoan, said the quantity of the poultry produced in the region was in surplus, despite some exports from the province to Phnom Penh.
He said that even though in the past people have avoided eating poultry because of the bird flu virus, some were beginning to feel less afraid.
“We have measures to prevent an outbreak of the disease,” he said.
Ouk Vithia, head of the provincial office of communicable disease control for the Ministry of Health, said his team has been sending out H5N1 educational messages through television and radio and by placards on motorcycle carriage taxis.
The messages encourage people to wear masks and gloves when they touch dead or sick birds. When they eat, they should order eggs and birds to be cooked well.
However, he said he wasn’t sure how many people remain afraid of eating poultry for fear of the disease.