Avian influenza, last season transmitted by migrating wild birds, is now being spread through the poultry trade, the top United Nations expert on the issue said today, warning that despite some successful efforts of States to contain the virus, no one can afford to be complacent as it could potentially mutate into a human pandemic.
“I’m generally and personally very happy with the way in which countries have organized themselves to try to respond to these challenges,” David Nabarro, Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, told reporters at a briefing at UN Headquarters.
However, he cautioned, “We have to not only maintain focus on the challenges of avian influenza, but we must get more pandemic ready.”
Since late last year, outbreaks of avian flu have been confirmed in ten countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, China, Japan, Egypt, Nigeria, Hungary and the United Kingdom. There has been a report, as yet unconfirmed, of an occurrence in Turkey, and there have been no confirmed outbreaks in North and South America. Dr. Nabarro said that he forecasts that more outbreaks are to come, yet currently, it is not possible to predict their geographic distribution.
This season’s wave of avian flu, unlike that of last season, is largely believed to be passed on through the poultry trade as opposed to migration of contaminated wild birds. Other methods of transmission of H5N1 include water and soil contamination as well as handling of infected poultry.
Since 2003, there have been 272 confirmed cases of the H5N1 virus in humans, with 166 deaths according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO). UN agencies are continually concerned that the virus could mutate and be transmitted readily between people, causing a global pandemic.
Dr. Nabarro said that necessary measures to be taken against the virus include high-level political government commitment, fortified veterinary and human health services, robust compensation and rehabilitation schemes, private sector and civil society involvement and effective messages conveyed to the general public about the flu.
In some instances, mass culling, or extermination, of infected birds will be necessary to prevent a further spread of the virus. Already more than 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the virus or preventive culling in the current outbreak.
One of the greatest concerns, according to Dr. Nabarro, is that “in an effort to control the avian virus in countries that are very heavily affected, mass culling of birds, particularly among poorer people, can have really dramatic social, economic and nutritional consequences.”
To stave off such outcomes, funds are necessary for both compensation, to reimburse poultry farmers and laborers, and rehabilitation, to allow people to restart their businesses. The World Bank has a fund which distributes grants, of which Nigeria has already been a recipient. In emergencies, the UN has a central account which can dispense money quickly.