It’s Only Halftime in The Bird Flu Battle

“When a great team loses through complacency, it will constantly search for new and more intricate explanations to explain away defeat.”

Those are the words of Pat Riley, the Hall of Fame coach who won four NBA championships with the Lakers and a fifth with Miami Heat.

These words, however, are all too applicable to our present response to bird flu outbreaks. We have a great team in combating bird flu. From 2006 to 2010, the national bird flu committee, the National Committee for Avian Influenza Control and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (Komnas FBPI) and its partners managed to curb the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus.

The collective effort, which also involves dozens of ministries and government agencies, succeeded to cut down the numbers of bird flu fatalities from more than 50 deaths in 2005 to around 20 in 2010. The campaign succeeded in convincing more than 90 percent of Indonesians that bird flu is deadly and to do something to protect themselves. Most important, it introduced the word “pandemic” into the public’s vocabulary.

After the committee announced the victory against H5N1 in 2010, it was dissolved. Unfortunately, the decision to disband the committee turned all of its good work into a wasted victory.

Besides medical and veterinary officials, nobody else seems to continue paying attention to the highly pathogenic virus.

So officials’ latest comments about bird flu deaths and outbreaks look like could have come from the script for a soap opera.

Either it’s a blame game or just lip service. And neither helps encourage the public to take a stand to defeat the killer virus again.

Is the government looking for “new and more intricate explanations to explain away defeat”?

Here is the hard truth that we need to hear: we never won the war. Yes, we enjoyed some early success against the virus, but now the second half is starting and we still aren’t back in the game.

While we are in the halftime break, we need to develop the programs that will guarantee a sustained and successful battle against avian influenza.

Among these is fixing up our markets. For years, we have been told that cleaning up markets, especially traditional ones that sell live chickens, is one of the top priorities in the national strategy to contain bird flu and prevent a pandemic.

But we have not seen many changes. We still have the same grubby, grimy, wet, unhygienic markets. We still find live chickens being sold. And worse, we still see the traders handling chicken meat while at the same time wiping their noses, handling cash and engaging in other unhygienic practices without washing their hands.

We still have to go to modern super markets to buy frozen and properly handled poultry.
So there’s the hard truth. If we want to win the second half of what is a deadly serious game against avian flu, we have got to beef up our team’s performance. We need to draw up a game plan that allows us to get more shots and score more points.

Hence, we need to roll out another public campaign that pushes the market reform agenda.

The good news is that we now have National Committee on Zoonotic Diseases Control (Komnas Zoonoses), which has replaced the anti-bird flu agency.

After spending a year developing a structure and strategy, it should now be ready to run at full gear and lead a campaign.

What we, the public, should do is demand that this committee get to work soon and tell us what it is doing to fight bird flu and other diseases. The committee needs to ensure us that no one in Indonesia will walk out on the game in the second half.

Arie Rukmantara is a behavior change communications specialist based in Jakarta