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Bayu Krisnamurthi: The man in charge of coordinating bird flu response (Indonesia)

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  • Bayu Krisnamurthi: The man in charge of coordinating bird flu response (Indonesia)

    Emmy Fitri, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

    As a "punishment" for being part of the independence movement of the 1930s, young doctor Ismangil was sent off by the Dutch colonial administration to a tiny village in Selong in Lombok to quell outbreaks of pests.

    Only scanty records of the outbreaks exist in history textbooks, but the event was a turning point for Ismangil's family: His actions encouraged the younger generation to fight the good fight.

    As wise men point out, for better or for worse, history repeats itself unexpectedly. Under entirely different circumstances, Ismangil's grandson, Bayu Krisnamurthi, was given the opportunity to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

    "To me it's not a punishment, it's a duty that I have been entrusted to perform," Bayu said firmly.

    Unlike his grandfather, Bayu does not come from a medical background but from one in economics.

    A dedicated lecturer at his alma mater, the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, the father of three daughters said the task came with the post he assumed as a deputy to the coordinating minister for the economy.

    Bayu was born well off in Manado, North Sulawesi, but had a varied upbringing, experiencing at first hand the poverty and daily struggles of the farmers living in his grandparents' hometown in Blora, Central Java.

    "When I was small, my grandparents' village in Ngawen, Blora was our hometown. We visited it every holiday. Nothing changed dramatically (in Ngawen), there was a slow evolution, while in big cities life changes rapidly -- financial situations turn around so fast," recalled the 44-year-old.

    "It may sound romantic, but as a child I always thought of doing something for farmers."

    Bayu has made great strides toward achieving his life goals since graduating from agricultural college.

    His current posts at the Economics Ministry, the National Logistics Agency (Bulog) and at a number of ad-hoc committees have enabled him to amicably accommodate farmers' perspectives in policy-making.

    Bayu's friends and colleagues banteringly say his job is to take care of nasi goreng ayam (fried rice with chicken): The nasi stands for the rice issue at Bulog, the goreng for Bayu's role in crude palm oil affairs and the ayam for his position on the national bird flu committee.

    When the avian influenza outbreak in poultry was reported in 2003 in Central Java, Bayu's response to mass culling demands was carefully put: "The intangible aspects of culling chickens are overwhelming -- we cannot afford them."

    The majority of Indonesia's population are reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods.

    Poultry and livestock raising have become an indispensable part of the farmer's way of life, preserving the natural ecology of rural areas. However, the introduction of livestock and poultry production to urban areas has come with a number of drawbacks.

    "The first book I read after being appointed to chair the National Committee on Avian Influenza and Pandemic Preparedness was The Great Influenza. The book sheds light on what we're dealing with and has helped me understand the battle we're facing," Bayu said.

    John M. Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History chronicles accounts of the phenomenal 1918 swine flu, caused by H1N1, in the U.S., during which millions of people of productive age were killed.

    The 1918 outbreak is one of the ugliest in mankind's history. Experts fear the H5N1 virus, which causes avian influenza, could similarly mutate, triggering another pandemic.

    If the virus continues to spread from bird to bird and then among humans it could lead to a global pandemic that could kill up to 150 million people worldwide, with estimated costs reaching up to US$2 trillion.

    Having infected more than 340 people worldwide, avian influenza has become a global concern with researches dedicating their time to unraveling its secrets.

    Although hardest hit, Indonesia has yet to make any significant contribution to the world's scientific quest. To make things worse, in February this year, Health Minister Siti Fadila Supari decided to cease sharing specimens of the live virus -- virus specimens obtained from confirmed human cases -- as a protest to perceived unfair treatment from the World Health Organization.

    Experts expressed dismay at the ministry's prolonged standoff with the WHO, with Siti demanding a revision to the 50-year-old Global Influenza Surveillance system.

    Bayu declined to comment on the matter.

    "(Producing) a human vaccine for avian influenza is not in our main priority at this stage," he said diplomatically.

    "We've been living with this virus all along. What we can do is to live with it. It is best to prevent it from infecting us through adopting good hygiene practices. That's why one of our primary focuses is reaching the public and devising an effective campaign to communicate our messages."

    With more than 220 million people and approximately 1.4 billion chickens living in Indonesia, Bayu's work is highly challenging and unrelentless.

    During last week's interview his cellular phone suddenly beeped. "Good news. The latest (avian influenza in human) confirmed case in Tangerang is recovering," he smiled, sharing the contents of a text message.

    "In the past two years, we have seen better coordination among government sectors, unlike in the past. Communication among us (related government officials) is also improving. Public campaigns are jointly held to ensure broader outreach and community participation," he said.

    "I often think, why am I doing all these jobs? But I never find an answer -- so I just put my head down and work," said Bayu who commutes from Bogor to Jakarta every day.

    Bayu is a hands-on type of guy. He strives for the best and nothing gets past him.

    He was once stopped in the street by a neighbor, who wanted to know what to do about his pet birds. "We went through the procedure for cleaning the bird cage. When I jogged past his house the next week, I saw the cage was clean. It was such a relief," Bayu said.

    Battling avian influenza, which was originally a poultry disease, is not a job for the government alone.

    "Public participation is vital because it's their awareness and altered behavior that can prevent new infections."

    A number of disasters have hit the country in recent years, ranging from the man-made to the natural, and now, according to Bayu, possibly virus made.

    Bayu said he did not want his family to get too comfortable with his government position. "Every morning I tell my wife that today could be my last day in the job. I take nothing for granted," he said.

    A colleague, who asked not to be named, said she had strong memories of Bayu speaking before poultry farmers in North Sumatra. He told the farmers that if their chickens were infected with avian influenza, they had to be culled.

    "He told the farmers, 'if necessary I'll buy all the chickens'. But then he asked us where he'd find the money to buy all those chickens," she said.
    To her, Bayu possesses the rare characteristics of a great leader.
    "He's very accessible and open. Friends from donor organizations and international agencies surely share my opinion. We can find a brother, father, lecturer and a leader in Bayu."
    "The next major advancement in the health of American people will be determined by what the individual is willing to do for himself"-- John Knowles, Former President of the Rockefeller Foundation