Despite fewer outbreaks this year, UN agency warns bird flu still threatens lives
Although there have been fewer outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus this year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today warned that the disease continues to spread to new areas in countries where it has not been contained, threatening the lives of those working around poultry and hurting farm economies.
Worldwide, “there have been fewer cases of the disease this year than last year at the same time, indicating that there is a reduction in overall viral load,” said Joseph Domenech, Chief Veterinanry Officer of the FAO.
Last year, 53 countries reported H5N1 outbreaks while this year, only 17 countries have been affected.
Dr. Domenech said that surveillance and reporting of the virus has improved, and also he noted that the presence of H5N1 in wild birds is less this year. Last year, avian flu was believed largely to have been transmitted through the migration of contaminated birds.
This season, the poultry trade is seen as main route by which the disease spreads, and the greatest threat the virus poses is that every instance a person contracts H5N1 from poultry offers a new possibility for mutation into a form which could spread rapidly between people.
“The risk of a pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Domenech said. “This situation is a constant call to increase global efforts to contain this disease before it has an opportunity to mutate into a form that can threaten the world with a human pandemic.”
Although Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam have been generally successful in controlling the virus, FAO experts say that Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria have not been able to contain it, making them reservoirs of the disease for possible introduction to other countries.
In Egpyt, 24 human cases of the virus have been reported since mid-February, of which 13 were fatal. Outbreaks have occurred on four commercial farms and 13 cases originated in backyard poultry farms since the beginning of last month.
The country has been hindered in curbing the disease for several reasons, including the lack compensation for farmers who lose poultry due to culling. Egypt is currently revising its plan for controlling the disease with the help of FAO and other international partners.
Since the avian flu first surfaced in 2003, Indonesia has seen the highest death toll of any country, with 66 fatalities out of 171 worldwide.
Only three of the 33 Indonesian provinces are bird flu free, and the virus remains endemic in Java, Sumatra, Bali and South Sulawesi, according to FAO. Disease surveillance is being bolstered by FAO’s village-based Participatory Disease Surveillance system now functional in 130 of the 444 districts in the country, but more comprehensive information on nationwide outbreaks will remain spotty until surveillance coverage is increased.
Containing the disease in Indonesia has been hampered by its large size and geography with 17,000 islands spread over three time zones, a weak national veterinary service and insufficient global and national financing of prevention and control.
In Nigeria, authorities have not been able to control the movement of poultry and poultry products in infected areas, causing the disease to spread in many parts of the country.
FAO also cautions of the spread of H5N1 to new countries. Last month, the virus was detected in Bangladesh for the first time, and the agency said that this is not a surprising development since the disease is circulating in the wider region and transmission by contaminated migrating birds cannot be rule out.