Bird flu: UN agency urges greater support for countries struggling to control virus

Bird flu: UN agency urges greater support for countries struggling to control virus

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today expressed confidence in the United Kingdom’s ability to respond adequately to an outbreak of bird flu at a commercial turkey farm, but warned that greater support was needed to help countries still struggling to control the virus, such as Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria.

“Circulation of the H5N1 virus can be reduced in poultry if decisive action is taken at the highest political level, applying appropriate surveillance and virus detection, as well as control tools, including vaccination, and providing necessary material and financial support,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said.

FAO is closely monitoring the situation in the UK, where the authorities are still trying to determine the source of the outbreak at a farm in Suffolk, England, where 2,500 birds died of the virus and around 160,000 others were culled to prevent its spread.

It is also monitoring the situation in Hungary, where the virus was confirmed in a flock of geese in January, and is in contact with national veterinary authorities and the European Commission’s Health and Consumer Protection Directorate. UN health officials are concerned that the virus could mutate into a potentially deadly human pandemic.

FAO has sent a team from its Crisis Management Centre to work with the UN World Health Organization (WHO) in Nigeria following confirmation of the first human bird flu fatality there last week. The team will seek to ensure that appropriate food safety messages are disseminated to educate the public and avoid panic.

The aim is to provide realistic recommendations for those at highest risk of exposure to potentially infected birds, including those involved in the slaughter and processing.

The H5N1 virus was first detected in poultry in Nigeria in February 2006. Since then, more than 700,000 poultry have died or been culled there. Despite control measures, 19 of the country’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory have been affected.

At their annual coordination meeting on global animal health issues last week in Rome, senior officials of FAO, WHO and the inter-governmental World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) voiced serious concerns that the substantial progress made in many parts of the world against bird flu is being jeopardized by insufficiently determined and inadequately funded action in a few countries where the virus continues to circulate.

“Globally, the situation is better than it was three years ago, but the recent revival of outbreaks in some countries shows that there is no cause for complacency,” Mr. Domenech said. “The virus is still circulating in parts of the world and national veterinary services have to remain on constant alert because of the risk of reintroduction of the virus.”

FAO estimates that it will take several years before the H5N1 is eliminated from the poultry industry and has warned that this will require a firm commitment from governments, poultry farmers and the international community.

Ever since the first human case of H5N1, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand, was reported in January 2004, UN health officials have warned that the virus could evolve into a human pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily between people.

The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. More than 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the virus or preventive culling.

There have so far been 272 confirmed human cases worldwide, 166 of them fatal, the vast majority in South-East Asia. Indonesia has recorded the highest death toll – 63 out of 81 cases. Egypt has had 12 deaths out of 20 cases, all since last year. The largest human incidence was in Viet Nam with 93 cases, 42 of them fatal, but none reported since 2005.