KAFR EL SHEIK IBRAHIM, Egypt, April 11 — Given the choice between the possibility her children would fall ill from bird flu or the certainty they would go hungry if she got rid of the ducks she raised in her home, Hamida Abdullah said there was really no choice at all.
"You think we are going to fast?" Ms. Abdullah said as she pushed open a door to expose a sad-looking, feces-covered pen where a dozen muddy ducks chased one another.
It has been two months since Egypt confirmed that avian flu had arrived in the Arab world's most populous country. Since then 12 people have developed the illness, and some have died.
[A government news agency said Thursday that there had been a fourth human death, Reuters reported.]
Egyptian authorities did not hide the flu's arrival, but government officials did not seem prepared to deal with it. There was no clear policy initially for trying to keep the disease from spreading. After the government decided to vaccinate domestic poultry against the flu, it was learned that there was not enough vaccine, people in the poultry industry said.
The government then turned to culling birds, relying on Egyptian security forces. Some poultry industry experts said this only contributed to the spread of the disease.
As in many other developing countries, the Egyptian government was faced not just with a medical and scientific battle, but also with a serious social problem that threatened to undermine stability in vast stretches of poor, rural communities.
Telling poor Egyptians in the countryside they cannot raise poultry at home for food and extra income would be like prohibiting Russians from growing vegetables at their dachas. It would cut off not only a crucial source of nutrition, but also a lifestyle that has deep cultural roots.
The government knew it was impossible to ban raising birds at home, so it allowed people outside the city to keep their personal flocks, so long as they were caged and healthy.
Bird flu has devastated Egypt's poultry industry, effectively reducing a stock of an estimated 100 million broiler chickens at any given time by 95 percent from both disease and culling. But the tragedy of the disease is most evident in the Nile Delta region north of Cairo, the nation's breadbasket and now an incubator of fear and bird flu.
The human cases of the virus have shown up primarily in three Delta governates, including the location of this village, in Menufiyya, where a 16-year-old girl died after coming in contact with infected birds.
"Every house has chickens," said Elmurss Suliman Khamis, whose family slaughtered their chickens and now supplements its meals with beans, fried and boiled. "We can't live without chickens. We actually live with chickens."
Indeed, people here live with chickens, ducks and pigeons in their homes.
Ms. Abdullah, 43, said she ran her household, which includes her husband, two sons and two daughters, on the equivalent of about $35 a month. A pound of meat costs about $2, far out of her price range for everyday meals. Their four-room home has concrete walls, concrete floors covered by tattered rugs and a pen at the back where the birds run free.
"Yes, we are eating them," she said dismissively when asked if she worried about bird flu. "What should we do? Throw them in the street?"
Some villagers said they initially hid their birds from inspectors by packing them up in crates and carrying them out into the fields. The government offered to recompense owners the equivalent of about $1 per bird it killed, but the villagers either did not believe they would get paid, or they felt their birds were worth more at market.
When the birds started to die and people started to get sick, some residents began killing their poultry, or, in the parlance of the village, "rescue them" before they became ill. For a time people lived off them. But those stocks are beginning to run out.
Saida Suliman recently slaughtered dozens of birds she had raised in a pen outside her front door.
"May God help us so we can raise chickens again," she said. She is anxious because she has no idea what she will feed the guests at her son Muhammad's wedding in July.
Across the railroad tracks and a four-lane highway that cuts through the farmland, the village of Rateb sits on the bank of a canal. It is an area thick with white feathers and rotting bird carcasses.
The people here said they had killed their flocks, but eventually some residents conceded they had kept some birds, mostly ducks, after their chickens began to die. They said they dumped the dead chickens in the canal.
Government officials have said that keeping ducks is more dangerous than chickens, because they can carry the avian flu virus without appearing sick. But the villagers here insisted their ducks were healthy.
"I have chickens," said Sayed Abu Tahon, 24. "You want to see?" He walked toward a green field, past two water buffaloes. He, his wife and daughter share a four-room home with his brother, his brother's wife and their three children. He said he was a day laborer and, if he was lucky, found work 10 days a month.
"I depend more on my chickens than my work," he said, opening a door onto a balcony loaded with baby chicks. The floor was layered in bird droppings. Children in open-toed sandals darted after the baby birds.
"I think it's a rumor," he said stoically, his wife by his side, when asked if he worried about bird flu. "I've not seen any infected birds."
Downstairs, on the side of the house, he opened a metal door, to show maybe a dozen chickens. More children played in the dirt nearby.
"Most of the people who slaughtered their chickens did it because of the rumor," he said. "They believed it. I didn't."