TONGQIAO, China, Mar 31: Na Qiuqing's chickens huddle in their tarpaulin-covered coop trying to avoid the fierce wind that howls across the plain, whipping up a fine yellow dust that sticks to clothes and irritates eyes.
''We know how to prevent bird flu. There's no problem here,'' Na said in her guttural dialect, standing outside her mud-brick house in Tongqiao village in the remote, northwestern Chinese region of Ningxia.Lao Wang agrees, a dirty towel wrapped up close around her face as she digs at a tiny patch of field next to her house, where she also keeps a few chickens, along with a lone pig and an old donkey.
''It's safe to have the chickens at home again,'' Wang said, pausing for a moment to rest on her hoe.
Bird flu, which has killed 11 people in China since late last year, has only added to the woes of the 700 million or so people who live in the countryside, performing often backbreaking labour and earning just a third of their urban compatriots.
More than 300 million of China's farmers lack safe water to drink, and in Ningxia the government estimates that two-thirds of the almost 6 million population is infected with hepatitis B.
A prolonged drought in the already arid region compounds the problems of Ningxia's farmers.
For them, poverty is part of everyday life, and bird flu just another challenge they have to deal with.
Health experts say people should not live with poultry, or any farm animals, to lower the risk of humans catching potentially fatal diseases, such as bird flu or swine fever.
Yet despite government warnings and education campaigns, poverty means this still happens in China.
SLEEPING WITH CHICKENS
''Are people still sleeping with their chickens? Yes, they are,'' said Julie Hall, who oversees the World Health Organisation's fight against bird flu in China.
''The reality is, people are poor. Chickens are incredibly valuable sources of income and source of protein. Chickens don't like being cold,'' Hall said. ''The only source of heat is the kitchen.
''These issues of poverty, of rural development, really need to be tackled if we are truely going to tackle not only H5, but many of these diseases.''
Ningxia had its own brush with bird flu in December, when an outbreak of the H5N1 virus was found in Shangqiancheng village, just up the road from Tongqiao and on the outskirts of regional capital Yinchuan. Police cars sealed off the village and workers culled birds within a three-km radius. Several months on, a sense of bitterness remains.''They took them and killed them, all of them,'' said one old man, who declined to give his name. ''There's nothing left here.'' Posters with cartoon characters telling people not to touch sick chickens and to report sudden, unexplained bird deaths, are peeling off walls and electricity polls.
In their place are new posters, offering free tests and treatment for hepatitis.
Other slogans painted on the sides of walls in giant, white characters remind people of China's one-child policy.
Villagers say health workers have come around and vaccinated not only chickens, but pigs too.MANY PROBLEMS, MANY MANTRAS
In Yinchuan city, live chickens are still for sale in markets, and there are no obvious signs of public education efforts.
''There's no bird flu, it's not a problem,'' said a stall holder, who gave his surname as Ma, picking up a scrawny looking chicken from a cage.
''Early discovery, early reporting,'' he said, repeating a government mantra about reporting all poultry deaths as soon as possible for testing.
Yet with bird flu endemic in China and the government admitting to the difficulty of surveillance in such a poor and vast country, no amount of sloganeering is going to cover every eventuality.
''In those circumstances, you need to strengthen your animal surveillance system to make it more sensitive, so that even with a few die-offs, people should be alerted,'' said Henk Bekedam, the WHO's chief representative in China.
''My parents were farmers, and I know that chickens do die, and it's not something that's very unusual. Especially when a few die, there's not always a link with avian influenza.''