Dang Pham Minh Loan, spokeswoman for the Yen Viet Company, was quoted by Tien Phong newspaper as saying that the culling of swifts at the firm’s Thanh Binh farm would cause her company to incur losses of nearly VND100 billion (US$4.73 million).

Yen Viet will follow whatever decisions made by related agencies, but also needs support from authorities in face of the losses, she said.

The mass culls came on the heels of an emergency note issued Thursday by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development which urged strong measures to quell the outbreak at its onset.

The dispatch also asked the Ninh Thuan government to "immediately" declare the bird flu epidemic in the province.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the Animal Health Center VI announced that samples taken from dead birds at Yen Viet's two farms in Ninh Thuan's Phan Rang Town – where nearly 5,000 swifts have died since the end of March – tested positive for H5N1, Tien Phong (Pioneer) reported Wednesday.

The samples taken from living birds, their nests and feces, however, tested negative for the virus, said the center, which is under the agriculture ministry’s Animal Health Department.

Conversely, the Nha Trang branch of the Pasteur Institute did find H5N1 in the five samples of living birds it took from one of the two farms, the newspaper quoted Phan Thi Lai, vice director of Ninh Thuan Health Department, as saying.

According to Nguyen Xuan Binh, director of the Animal Health Center VI, these cases represent the first two outbreaks of bird flu to ever be recorded among farmed swifts worldwide.

All the swifts at the farms must be destroyed, while their nests must be exposed to high temperatures, as the virus dies at 80 degrees Celsius, the official explained.

Verdict in doubt

At the Tuesday meeting Binh also urged Ninh Thuan authorities to announce that bird flu outbreaks had taken place among farmed swifts, so necessary measures for epidemic prevention can be applied, Tien Phong reported.

Previously the center had made the same request, but local authorities had refused to grant it, saying that there was insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion about the nature of the outbreaks.

“The province’s viewpoint is that the community’s health must be the top priority, but it is also necessary to carefully consider the presence of influenza in swifts to make timely decisions as regulated,” Tran Xuan Hoa, the Ninh Thuan vice mayor, said.

Local authorities warned that an announcement on bird flu outbreaks among farmed swifts will cause big losses, but also said that they would make it; and cull all questionable birds if so ordered by the agriculture ministry.

Meanwhile, local swifter farms and associated businesses have raised doubts about the accuracy of the H5N1 tests that have been administered so far, online newspaper VnExpress reported.

They said swifts live separately from other species, asserting that there was only a small chance they could have come in contact with the virus carried by other birds, and that the only explanation would be that water sources had become infected.

They also pointed to the fact the bird flu outbreaks among swifts have yet to be recorded in other regional countries with more developed swift farming industries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Therefore, authorities need to hire other testing agencies, including foreign ones, to conduct more tests in order to arrive at “accurate” and “objective” conclusions.

In an interview with Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon (Saigon Economic Times), Nguyen Khoa Dieu Thu, former chief of the Animal Biotechnology Division at the Institute of Tropical Biology and who has spent many years studying farmed swifts, also urged health authorities to conduct more tests before officially announcing a bird flu outbreak among swifts.

If it is concluded that the birds were killed by H5N1, it will be a “big problem” and severely affect bird nest businesses, Thu said.

Since the business cropped up in Vietnam in 2004, thousands of families have made their livings on it and invested as much as tens of thousands of dollars in their farms, she said.

In fact, since it was announced that some dead swifts had been found with H5N1, many bird nest shops in Ninh Thuan have seen their sales plummeting.

It has been reported that one kilogram of bird nest is now estimated to be US$1,600-1,800.

The H5N1-caused bird flu has caused at least 62 deaths among 123 infected patients in Vietnam since 2003, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The first human fatality from H5N1 in Vietnam in more than a year – a four-year-old child – was reported last week.

People can become infected from direct or close contact with fowl carrying the virus, which is deadly among domesticated ducks and chickens.

To combat human cases of bird flu, Vietnam has been vaccinating farmed fowl and treating infected people with the antiviral Tamiflu.

Thanh Nien News - April 17 2013