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Fighting Cocks – A Dangerous Way to Spread Bird Flu
By Phaisythong Chandara
Update Magazine

CHIANG MAI - “Hit it die, hit it die,” the trainer cries out to his rooster in Thai. (“Tee Mun tai rery louk”)
“Who will die first?” the competing trainer taunts. (“ Khai ja tai korn kun”) This is a scene from a cock fight, as recently described by Prasith Bousuay, an owner of fighting roosters and a janitor at Chiang Mai University.

In between rounds, the trainers help the roosters recover by spraying them with water, massaging their body and legs, and
cleaning any injuries from their battles in the ring. The owners literally suck the blood and saliva from the rooster’s mouth, Prasith explained, “because it will help their cocks to breathe better, and be refreshed and strong to fight the next round.”

Cock fighting, known as “kai chon” in Thai, is a popular traditional sport in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia.

But these have been bad times. Many cock fight owners have lost their businesses because their chickens had to be killed during the two bird-flu outbreaks that started late last year.

Kumnuan Ungchusak, epidemiology director at the Ministry of Public Health, said Thais love their fighting cocks so much they raise them in their house and sometimes put them next to their bed. The weekend fights draw a crowd, with many placing bets on which rooster will win.

While Olympic boxers fight only three, three-minute rounds, fighting cocks go 11 longer rounds.

But the fights are dangerous – to humans as well.

The biggest problem occurs during the breaks between rounds when blood and saliva are sucked out of the rooster’s mouth, Kumnuan said. It’s easy for the bird flu virus to go from the rooster to its owner. The virus, he explained, enters a person’s nose or mouth, reproduces in the throat, and then goes to the lungs.

The early symptoms are similar to normal flu, but the bird flu virus especially is deadly, with up to a 70 percent mortality rate based on cases in the past year in Thailand and Vietnam. People show symptoms within seven days, and die within two weeks.

People already have died through close contact with their fighting roosters.

Komson Fakhorm, who raised fighting cocks, became Thailand's ninth bird-flu victim last month.

The 18-year-old teen-ager from Prachin Buri province got the virus after his 30 fighting cocks died, but initially refused hospital treatment, Thai officials said. He eventually was admitted but died in the hospital.

A 16-year-old boy from the same village was placed under surveillance by health officials as he was close to the man who died and was known to have handled the fighting cocks. He also died.

Komsan’s relatives blamed local health officials for mishandling his case. He reportedly fell ill on Aug. 31 and was hospitalized on Sept. 4. But he was given only painkillers and put on intravenous feeding, his grandfather said, and not examined by a doctor until later. Relatives also complained that the community wasn’t properly informed of the epidemic and, if they were aware of the symptoms, Komsom wouldn’t have died.

Following Komsan’s death, Prachin Buri province was put on high alert. Transporting poultry was prohibited and more than 200 chickens were killed in a preventative measure.

To protect their valuable investments, cock owners want a vaccine that prevents birds from getting the deadly virus. But, Kumnuan noted, a hurried vaccine could result in the virus mutating rapidly and causing a bigger problem.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last month supported the idea of vaccinating the millions of fighting cocks but not poultry. He wants to try to avoid the situation of countries imposing a long-term ban on Thai exports. Thailand was the fourth largest exporter in the world of chicken.

The Public Health Ministry recently said it would work on the search for human vaccines with the World Health Organization next year. A timetable to develop a vaccine for chickens hasn’t been announced.

Because of the current bird flu epidemic, Prasith said he now protects himself, and doesn’t suck the saliva and blood from his roosters’ mouths.

“During the bird flu outbreak we should know the best way to protect ourselves,” he said. Even though bird flu hasn’t occurred in his area, he said he cleans his hands after taking care of or feeding his fighting cocks and would stay away from any cocks that become sick.

But other rooster owners aren’t afraid of the bird flu, and continue to bring their roosters to the fighting ring.

Mongkhon Phommar, 43, said he still sucks the blood and saliva from his roosters between rounds because he is confident they are healthy.

“If the cocks are not good and strong, I will not bring them out to fight,” he said.

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