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Editorial

Science-based info, not gossip

/ 05:18 AM August 19, 2017

Barely hours after the first reports that avian influenza had been found in a number of poultry farms in Pampanga—the first case of bird flu outbreak in the country, according to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine—alarming, anonymous messages began spreading in social media: “There is an outbreak of bird flu in Pampanga, 3 farms with 100 percent mortality. Better not to buy and eat chicken meat,” read one breathless example.

The viral warnings went out Friday, Aug. 11. While various government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health were not remiss in issuing prompt statements and updates about the outbreak to try to allay public fears, it took about three days for Malacañang itself to announce that the flu strain found was in fact not harmful to humans. Tests conducted on birds in the quarantined farms confirmed the presence of the H5 strain of the virus, but not the more lethal H5N1 strain, which could be transmitted to and kill humans.

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News reports had also carried that distinction, which, to be fair, government agencies like the Bureau of Animal Industry had taken pains to stress. But the speed of social media to spread false or incomplete information, unwittingly aided by what appeared to be a less-than-coordinated public information campaign by the government, led to some critical hours and days dominated by unfounded fears and speculations, leading to some detrimental real-time consequences.

With some 600,000 birds announced to be culled by the agriculture department, the sales volume of chicken reportedly dropped by 75 percent, affecting hundreds of poultry farmers. Prices have also plunged, from P125-150 per kilo to P90 or lower. Duck farms outside of the main infected area in the town of San Luis have been as badly hit; despite being 12 kilometers away from San Luis, Barangay Bahay Pari has reported losses from 2 million eggs unsold. In Minalin, considered the egg capital of Luzon and also outside the 7-km quarantine area, Mayor Edgar Flores pleaded with the DA and DOH to declare the town’s produce as “safe for consumption,” or its main livelihood faced catastrophe.

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In another indication of the ad hoc nature of the official response to the outbreak, some local governments in Luzon have reportedly taken it upon themselves to stop the entry of poultry products “even without scientific basis,” lamented Irwin Ambal, president of the Philippine Egg Board Association. “There are a lot of government experts. Let’s ask them. Let’s not rely on gossip on social media,” he added.

The experts’ consensus so far is far from the hysterical, frightening scenario that has gone around. No person has yet died from this bird flu outbreak; two farm workers in San Luis who came down with flu-like symptoms eventually tested negative for the virus. Some of the country’s biggest poultry producers have issued statements saying that their farms are free from contamination, and that they have adequate biosecurity measures in place to prevent any outbreak. And the DOH is clear: The best way to ensure that chicken and eggs are safe to eat is to cook them thoroughly—an assurance that hasn’t gone out as much as it should have.

This is not to diminish the gravity of the potential health emergency. The general scare that has led to unprecedented losses by poultry farmers and apprehension among the public demands better, more transparent handling by the authorities. The hundreds of thousands of culled birds, for instance—how is the DA disposing of the carcasses safely, and what measures are in place to ensure that farm personnel handling these don’t end up with the disease?

To stay ahead of the inevitable social-media mania, official information—accurate, prudent, science-based and readily available—is critical, especially in a first-time crisis. This is an imperative in governance in these modern times. Apart from spreading photographs of government officials consuming chicken and eggs, has enough been done?

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