Avian flu shadows Vietnam's Lunar New Year traditions

Feb 3, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – As Vietnamese prepare to welcome the Year of the Rooster, the chicken is uppermost in the minds of many.

The Lunar New Year, or Tet, is a time of extended celebration in Vietnam. But this year is different. The threat of avian influenza, which has killed 12 Vietnamese and at least one Cambodian since Dec 30, 2004, is dampening the traditional celebrations, particularly as they involve poultry.

Vietnamese often describe Tet to Americans as the equivalent of celebrating Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, and one's birthday all at once. The official holiday starts Feb 9, but planning begins about 2 weeks earlier. People spruce up their homes, pay their debts, and start cooking. Many travel to visit relatives, often carrying live poultry with them.

A whole chicken is a prized part of Tet, restaurateur Mai Pham wrote in "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table," which is excerpted online at www.adoptvietnam.org. The chicken symbolizes prosperity and abundance, and is added to ancestor-worship altars.

Yen V. Pham, executive director of Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota, said chickens are a fine gift to honor important relatives. Pham recalled that as a teenager in southern Vietnam that he would tie the feet of a chicken or duck to make it easier to transport them as a gift for his uncle. Pham's family would travel 20 miles from Bien Hoa City to the uncle's home on a three-wheeled motorized vehicle, the chickens secured in back. The family crowded into one home for Tet, sleeping on floors or couches for days of visiting, playing games, and eating.

"You stay together, you have a warm family feeling," he said.

Boiled chicken, roasted chicken, duck, and pork are all staples of Tet recipes, Pham explained.

Safety worries change menus
But the widespread outbreak of avian flu among poultry, as well as new rules and tighter surveillance to identify ill birds, may eclipse the starring role of poultry on the table for Tet.

For example, take the family of Hanna Nguyen, 21, a junior at the University of Minnesota and vice president of the Vietnamese Student Association. She speaks twice a month with family members in Vietnam. An aunt in Vietnam recently told her the family's Tet celebration will be different.

"She said the bird flu is coming back and this New Year they can't have chicken," Nguyen said yesterday. "She wanted to make a meal with chicken and herbs. All my cousins love it. But this year, they're not going to have it." Her aunt won't serve chicken because of concern that it wouldn't be safe, she explained.

For the same reason, Nguyen's family avoided eating chicken almost entirely last summer during their visit, she added. In Vietnam, "People are so poor they might tell you a chicken is safe just to get some money to put food on the table," Nguyen said

One of her family's Tet customs involves boiling a chicken and honoring their ancestors in a traditional ceremony, Nguyen said. The chicken indicates respect and remembrance for ancestors. Often a household member, usually the oldest, tears off a drumstick, and the family examines it to help predict their luck in the coming year.

"If the tendon is red, that symbolizes luck, a prosperous and happy upcoming year," Nguyen said. "Yet if the tendon is brown, it is a sign and forecast that the upcoming year will not go as smoothly."

Tet is a time when even families who can't afford to eat meat often will splurge, Nguyen explained. It's also a time of heightened concern for agencies that monitor avian flu.

Because of the recent spate of human deaths from H5N1 flu, the World Health Organization has called for stronger control measures during Tet to prevent the spread of avian flu through increased poultry marketing, consumption, and mass travel. An estimated 200,000 Vietnamese living abroad return to Vietnam to celebrate Tet, the Associated Press (AP) reported on Jan 28.

Travelers face checkpoints
Last year the Vietnamese government banned the sale and transport of poultry before Tet in an effort to contain avian flu. Officials have not announced such a ban this year, according to the AP. But as Vietnamese travel to visit relatives, laden with gifts and food for Tet, many will pass through checkpoints set up to help contain the disease.

Checkpoints have been set up around all major cities to ensure that birds have been inspected and come from areas free of avian flu outbreaks, the AP reported today. The Veterinary Department in the northern province of Son La has opened at least 38 checkpoints to prevent the movement of potentially sick chickens, the Voice of Vietnam Web site reported yesterday. However, the AP said a ban on the movement poultry out of four hard-hit provinces had been lifted because 21 days had passed with no new outbreaks.

Riot police have been posted at poultry checkpoints around Ho Chi Minh City to keep people from bringing in infected or uncertified poultry. About 300,000 chickens in the city were to be slaughtered, and the remaining 150,000 were to be raised under stricter hygiene rules, the Voice of Vietnam reported last week.

Poultry consumption is down in big cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, according to an online report Feb 1 by ABC news. Vietnam has banned imports of poultry from adjacent countries, so some supermarkets and restaurants now offer chicken from Australia and Brazil.

This week Ho Chi Minh City ordered the speedy slaughter of the estimated 210,000 ducks being raised in the city and barred farmers from restocking ducks for the rest of this year, the online newspaper Vietnam News reported yesterday.

Ducks and pigeons being raised for food will be burned or buried alive, animal health officials told Reuters news service.

The impact of this avian flu outbreak is likely to last well beyond the Year of the Rooster.

Nguyen and her family visited Vietnam last summer, dividing their time in the Hoc Mon region near Ho Chi Minh City between relatives who lived in the city and those who lived on farms. She saw evidence of the government's attempts to quell avian flu.

"We went by a deserted, burned chicken farm. My aunt said they burned it down when the bird flu hit," Nguyen said.

Even her grandmother has felt the effects. "She has a small little farm, 10 to 15 chickens she raised for eggs," Nguyen said. "They had to kill her chickens."

Nguyen wondered aloud how the flu would affect that rural area of Hoc Mon. "That whole area is farmland. Everybody has chickens," she said.

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