(Adds new outbreak, details on impact on poultry industry)
By Ruma Paul
DHAKA, Feb 4 Bird flu has spread to three more districts in Bangladesh, taking the number of affected districts to 37, officials said on Monday, as the government pledged to raise compensation to farmers for culled poultry.
The latest cases were reported in southern Bagerhat and western Kushtia districts while the virus has re-emerged in several others, an official in the livestock department said.
Health workers began culling in southwestern Jhenaidah district after more than 200 chicken died from the H5N1 bird flu virus, local officials said on Monday.
More than half Bangladesh's 64 districts are affected by bird flu which has been able to spread, health experts say, partly due to ignorance among millions of farmers in the poor nation.
The official said the interim government had decided to increase the amount of compensation for poultry farmers to encourage them to report and cull sick birds. The official didn't say what the increase would be.
Farmers currently receive between 60 and 80 taka ($0.87 to $1.17) for each culled chicken, which they say is inadequate. Farmers get 60 taka for each duck.
"The authorities are also considering lifting restrictions on paying compensation," the official said. At present, poultry owners receive compensation for up to 5,000 culled chickens.
In the country's second biggest city, Chittagong, officials stepped up surveillance after the virus was detected in dead crows. Pointing to a lack of awareness about the danger of the disease, a local newspaper on Monday printed a photograph of a man, wearing no mask and holding a stick in his bare hands, sifting through dead crows in the port city.
According to media reports, Chittagong officials said they knew of no bird flu cases in any of the city's poultry farms and wondered how to get rid of the crows that apparently flew from other districts carrying the virus.
Despite a government drive to burn or bury dead birds, many farmers and backyard poultry breeders continue to ignore warnings, officials said.
Touching or eating sick poultry is the common way to become infected by the H5N1 bird flu virus that has killed more than 220 people globally since late 2003.
So far no human infection has been reported in Bangladesh, though about 4 million people are involved in poultry farming.
The H5N1 virus, first detected in Bangladesh in March last year, was quickly brought under control through aggressive measures including culling, but follow-up monitoring eased in later months prompting the disease to reappear, experts say.
"It was poor monitoring by the authorities and lack of efforts and awareness by poultry owners that led to the re-emergence of the killer virus in late 2007," said one official at a poultry zone near Dhaka, who asked not to be identified.
The bird flu outbreak is threatening the country's poultry industry, which is worth about $1.4 billion. About 400,000 chickens and ducks have been culled since last March and demand for poultry and eggs has fallen.
Chicken prices in markets in the capital have dropped 25 percent over the past two weeks, while the price of eggs has fallen 20 percent or more.
In the past six months, nearly 40 percent of Bangladesh's 150,000 poultry farms have closed because of high prices of chicks and feed, and more will be out of business because of falling chicken and egg prices, poultry owners say. ($1 = 68.5 taka) (Writing by Anis Ahmed; Editing by David Fogarty)