Reporter's Notebook: A Visit to Village Where Bird Flu Struck Down Family

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Getting to Kubu Simbelang -- the epicenter of the latest bird flu outbreak -- is not easy. It's a grueling four-hour drive from Medan, the closest Indonesian city, and most of the route is on bumpy and narrow winding roads.

As we approach, I notice orange groves adorning the remote village. Kubu Simbelang itself is small, with tiny homes. People live in close proximity to one another. Chickens, ducks, geese and pigs roam between houses and on the streets. It was quickly apparent that the villagers had not taken heed of the official government rule, which is to kill all poultry in this area.

At the beginning of the outbreak, some of the villagers told us they did kill their animals, but they stopped because no sick poultry had been found. It was a little discomforting to think we could have been near infected birds, but we had been given specific instructions not to go near the livestock. As long as we adhered to the rules, we would be OK, we were told.

The villagers took us to a row of three houses belonging to the recent victims. In these houses, seven family members caught bird flu and eventually died from it, although one family member's cause of death remains undetermined.

At the home of the last family member to die, his porch light was still on and his pet bird -- still alive -- was locked in a cage, chirping. His relative told us no one had returned to the house since his death earlier this week.

How did villagers feel about the local government's response? Most were angry, saying officials only visited them twice. They felt abandoned. While we were there, we never saw any officials -- giving weight to the villagers' side of the story.

Many villagers also seemed confused -- one member of the victims' family also told us that there was no bird flu virus in the village. If there was, he asked, why weren't they quarantined? Why weren't there more deaths? Or sick birds, or even dead birds?

So many questions, he said, and so few answers.

But what struck me most was the almost carefree attitude of many of the villagers. Almost all the people we spoke to said they were not worried and that there was no threat. Why? Because there have been no more confirmed cases, they said.

They also had their own explanation of why the virus spread in the one family, blaming it on "pyongmoney," which in the local Karo language means "evil spirits." This isn't unusual -- these villagers are part of the Karo tribe and the belief in spirits and mysticism is deeply entrenched. While they seemed almost fearless, others from neighboring villages refused to visit Kubu Simbelang, too afraid of catching the virus.

However, it does seem that the Kubu villagers are learning about bird flu. At a tiny and rudimentary clinic we saw brightly colored posters about the virus. Diagrams showed how humans can become infected from poultry.

The local doctor told us that after the cluster in the family was reported, 35 people came for a checkup. The clinic tests for fever and flulike symptoms, and the vilage has set up a support network to look out for and encourage one another to go to the doctor.

For now, the World Health Organization is monitoring people who came into contact with the last victim. No one else has shown symptoms.

And in the village, life continues as normal. Its livestock continues to roam around, as does the poultry. Many Indonesians depend on poultry as a source of food, and many still live close to their animals.

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