Killing the Chickens Before They Kill Us

When the Netherlands was besieged with infected birds two years ago, Harm Kiezebrink designed mobile bird-killing machines and slaughtered millions of birds. Now, he has moved his contraptions to Asia, where a deadly bird flu virus (H5N1) has rampaged through multiple countries over the last 18 months. Because the virus would spread quickly and widely among humans if were to genetically mutate, it is necessary to protect human lives by killing infected birds. In addition to Kiezebrink's machine, which is only accessible to a limited number of the endangered areas, has has invented a simpler, more cost-effective method involving the use of special plastic sacks. He is now calling for donations to so that emergency kits containing these sacks can be distributed. – YaleGlobal

Killing the Chickens Before They Kill Us

Gerald Traufetter
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The experts all agree: Bird flu could represent a major and deadly danger to humans the world over. And the only way to stop it is to cull the infected birds. All of them. One Dutchman, equipped with his AED-100 chicken-killing machine, is doing his part.

Harm Kiezebrink runs a factory of death. And a remarkably fast one, at that. "Ten thousand per hour," explains the 46-year-old Dutchman.

Kiezebrink is talking about his AED-100 chicken-killing machine -- a contraption about the size of a shipping container. It works like this: The birds are hung upside down on a mechanical claw, are dunked in water and then electrocuted. "The death is split second," Kiezebrink says.

Almost no one is more of an expert than he when it comes to rapidly massacring mass quantities of poultry. And that expertise is exactly what is currently needed in Asia. For the past year and a half, a deadly bird flu known as H5N1 has been rampaging through Thailand, Vietnam and China and other countries of Southeast Asia. And the only way to stop the pest from spreading is by rapidly and thoroughly destoying millions of birds.

"Kiezebrink is one of the most well-known chicken killers in Europe," says Roy Wadia, spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Beijing. The agency has been warning about the epidemic for months. Kiezebrink made his name two years ago when the Netherlands was besieged with infected birds. At the time, he reworked killing machines, originally designed for slaughterhouses, into mobile units. "Eleven million birds" were killed, he says, without missing a beat.

And now he's moved his killing machine to Asia, where it has stormed through stalls at a remarkable rate. Since December 2003, 140 million birds have been slaughtered in order to keep the epidemic under control -- without success. Every day, the crisis becomes more alarming. And in April and May this year, the virus killed 1,500 migratory birds in a nature reserve in China. For epidemiologists, this as a red flag: The reserve is frequented by wide-ranging ducks and geese who could carry the virus all the way to the Himalayas.

Millions of humans could die

So far, more than 50 people have succumbed to the virus and the risk of more people getting infected is rising. That at least, is the opinion of molecular biologists. "We think that a decisive period has arrived," said Shigeru Omi, the regional director of WHO, at a crisis summit in Kuala Lumpur held earlier this month. At the meeting, a three-year plan was formulated which many hope will help contain the outbreak.

The goal is to prevent the mixing of the bird flu virus with human flu strains. If that were to happen, the pandemic could spread quickly and widely, and kill millions of people worldwide. The only way to keep the deadly virus from spreading is to keep the two strains as far away from each other as possible. For Kiezebrink, therefore, it is clear. "We can only save human lives by killing the infected birds," he says. He is also critical of previous methods used to destroy the virus-carrying fowl. Generally, it consisted of about a dozen workers stuffing hens into plastic bags, clobbering them with shovels, tossing them into a pit and then igniting them. "Often birds that were still alive fought their way out of the sacks and then disappeared in the undergrowth," Kiezebrink says. "And they took the virus with them."

Experts say it is imperative to keep bird flu from jumping the species gap to humans.

That's why the most important thing is disciplined killing. But Kiezebrink is also well aware that he can't arrive at every poor Chinese or Vietnamese farmer's house with his big, fancy and costly machine in tow. So, he's created an easy-to-use method that costs just over €25. It consists of a special sort of plastic sack with a smaller sack inside. The smaller sack must then be filled with carbon dioxide. "That's available in every tiny village in Asia because people drink beer over there too," Kiezebrink says with a laugh.

Five or six chickens go into the bag, it gets sealed, put into the other bag and when it is full, it gets burned. The advantage: Only a few workers are needed. "The more people who work with the infected birds, the more likely it is that someone will get infected," he says.

The special sacks are the central element of the emergency containers now being distributed in the crisis regions. Other components include protective clothing and machines for disinfection. The machines work with water that has been mixed with salt. The mixture is then spread in the stalls and shot through with electricity. The electrolytes increase the pH-value of the water and kill the virus.

Kiezebrink wants to distribute 50 of these containers and he is looking for donors willing to help pay for them. He has no qualms about their efficiency: He says the sacks can handle up to 500,000 birds in 24 hours.