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Bird flu viruses could re-emerge in upcoming flu season, warns UN agency

Bird flu viruses continue to circulate in poultry.
FAO/Tariq Tinazay
Bird flu viruses continue to circulate in poultry.

Bird flu viruses could re-emerge in upcoming flu season, warns UN agency

The United Nations food agency has issued a new warning saying bird flu viruses continue to pose a serious threat to human and animal health, adding they will pose a greater risk during the upcoming flu season.

“Bird flu viruses continue to circulate in poultry. Efforts must continue and be strengthened, not only in affected countries, but also in neighbouring States and areas with strong trade linkages,” said the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Chief Veterinary Officer, Juan Lubroth, at a joint meeting with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

Mr. Lubroth noted that while the world is more prepared than ever before to respond to the H7N9 and H5N1 avian influenza viruses, it is still important to remain vigilant.

“This is especially true for H7N9 since it causes no clinical signs in birds and is therefore very difficult to detect in poultry,” he said.

To address the issue, FAO has committed $2 million of emergency funding supplemented by over $5 million from USAID to kick-start H7N9 response efforts. USAID support has enabled FAO to help countries at risk dramatically improve surveillance capacities.

“Several at-risk countries previously unable to pick up the virus can now accurately detect H7N9,” said Mr. Lubroth. “Identifying the virus with consistency is critical to targeting control efforts and reducing spread.”

FAO and USAID have stressed that more work is required. In the short term this includes continued, targeted surveillance and trace back throughout the production and marketing system, contingency planning and compensation scheme development.

“Surveillance is key, and with support from key partners like USAID, we’re making progress,” said Mr. Lubroth. “In addition to helping countries detect the virus, we need to make sure authorities can trace back the virus to its points of origin and better understand how the virus is circulating so as to design effective control actions. Where appropriate we need to help Governments put together contingency plans for the possible detection of the virus and compensation schemes for assisting those affected by control efforts.”

In the longer-term, FAO and USAID are urging countries to invest in improving the way they market and sell poultry.

“We need keep our eyes on the bigger picture of promoting healthy food systems, especially when it comes to animal production and marketing,” Mr. Lubroth said. “Restructuring can create healthier, safer markets by developing facilities that employ proper food safety and hygiene measures. Since animals, and therefore viruses, are inevitably gathered at markets, keeping these markets clean and safe reduces the chances for viruses and other pathogens to spread.”

Heads of FAO Reference Laboratories in Australia, China and the United States also attended the meeting, along with representatives from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Agriculture.