The deadly strain of bird flu that has hit several countries in Asia is likely to be carried over long distances along the flyways of wild water birds to the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and Africa, with the potential to trigger a global human pandemic, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.
“Avian influenza is an international problem that definitely needs a strong international response,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech told a news conference at the agency’s headquarters in Rome. “FAO is concerned that poor countries in South-East Europe, where wild birds from Asia mingle with others from northern Europe, may lack the capacity to detect and deal with outbreaks of bird flu.”
FAO called on affected countries and the world community to battle the virus at its origin, in poultry. “As long as the H5N1 virus circulates in poultry, humans continue to be at risk. This is why we have set up several regional networks in Asia to improve the cooperation between countries,” Mr. Domenech said, urging countries at risk to step up surveillance of domestic poultry and wild birds and to prepare national emergency plans.
Close contacts between humans, domestic poultry and wildlife should be reduced and closely monitored. On farms and in markets, domestic birds should be strictly separated from wild animals to the greatest extent possible. Vaccinating poultry could also be considered in at-risk situations.
Ever since the first human case of bird flu, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand, was reported in January last year, UN health officials have warned that the H5N1 virus could evolve into a global influenza pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily between people.
The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, unrelated to the present virus, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. Overall, there have been 112 reported human H5N1 cases, 57 of them fatal, all in South-East Asia. Some 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled in an effort to curb the spread.
Birds flying from Siberia, where H5N1 has been recently detected, may carry the virus to the Caspian and Black Sea in the foreseeable future, FAO said. These regions and countries in the Balkans could become a potential gateway to central Europe for the virus. Bird migration routes also run across Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and some Mediterranean countries, where bird flu outbreaks are possible, it added.
India and Bangladesh, which currently seem to be uninfected, are also considered at risk. Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent India, harbour large numbers of domestic ducks and are situated along one of the major migratory routes. They have the potential to become new large endemic areas of infection, FAO warned.
FAO and the inter-governmental World Animal Health Organization (OIE) have developed a strategy for the control of bird flu in Asia that will cost over $100 million to support surveillance, diagnosis and other control measures, including vaccination. So far, donors have pledged around $25 million in support of the strategy.