Date released
02 August 2018

By Johanna Wong

Australians do a double-take when I tell them I work with village chickens in Timor-Leste. Coming from a dog- and cat-vet background in Sydney, chickens are nowhere near as important to people here as they are to families in Timor-Leste.

Most rural households in Timor-Leste own free-ranging scavenging chickens. My research investigates whether improving village chicken health could improve maternal and child diets. Nutrition is a national priority in Timor-Leste, with half of all children under five years chronically undernourished.

It might initially seem paradoxical: ‘Don’t people keep chickens so they can eat eggs and meat? Obviously that would contribute to nutrition!’ But it’s not so simple. Most households keep a small number of chickens as a form of savings, accessed when they need cash or for ceremonies. Yet disease burdens keep flock sizes small, so chickens are rarely consumed at home and eggs are hatched for propagation.

The most significant illness of chickens is Newcastle disease, which can kill entire flocks within days.

My research was associated with the implementation of a Newcastle disease vaccination program by the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, using a community-based approach developed with ACIAR support. This research also involved the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health, and extension and community workers associated with each ministry.

Improving village chicken health increases access to healthy chicken meat, organs and eggs, as well increasing household income to purchase additional foods or services. It also reduces risk to human health by decreasing the common practice of consuming sick or dead birds.

To measure the effect of Newcastle disease vaccination on human nutrition, I collected data on chicken stocks and flows through the year, maternal and child diets, anthropometry and child haemoglobin in three seasons. I also used key informant interviews and focus group discussions to better understand findings.

The best aspect of my research so far has been living in rural villages, where the people are friendly and ready to share their thoughts, as well as watching the children enrolled in my study grow from babies who would cry every time a stranger came near, to worldly toddlers who bravely nod their assent to being measured and having their fingers pricked to check their haemoglobin levels. I also treasure the connections I’ve made with new friends and colleagues, particularly through RAID and the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC).

My original aspiration in becoming a veterinarian was to improve the well-being of animals. In clinical practice, I realised that by treating their pets, I could also improve the well-being of people. Today my aspirations remain essentially the same, but on a more meaningful scale.