The deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus, or bird flu, continues to threaten people, animals and economies in a growing number of countries, according to FAO, despite numerous successful efforts in several countries to contain the spread of the virus.
Though the disease has now been confirmed in some 55 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe, up from 45 in April this year, the rate of infection among poultry has slowed in most countries, according to FAO surveillance reports, thanks to programmes and projects to improve surveillance efforts, strengthen veterinary services and in some cases through the implementation of vaccination campaigns.
The deadly virus continues to spread in Asia, particularly in Indonesia where 45 people were confirmed to have died from bird flu. There have also been new outbreaks in Thailand recently and HPAI has been confirmed at a commercial poultry farm in Laos.
HPAI is also problematic in some African countries including Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, where FAO’s Emergency Prevention System reports outbreaks in poultry farms near Abeokuta, the capital of Nigeria’s southwestern state of Ogun.
Caucasus and southern Balkans called high-risk areas
“In Europe, we believe the southern Balkan area and Caucasus are a high-risk region for H5N1,” said Juan Lubroth, head of FAO’s Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal Diseases. “The region is not only a prime resting ground for migratory bird species, but poultry production is mostly characterized by rural and household husbandry with little in terms of biosecurity and strong regulatory inspection. In Romania it is still too early to say if the situation has stabilized.”
The bodies of two cats collected in Erbil, Iraq where 51 chickens died, tested positive with a distinct strain of the H5N1 virus first found in migrating birds in Qinghai Lake in western China in mid-2005. This is the first report of a Qinghai-like virus being detected in domestic cats, according to an FAO HPAI Situation Update.
Weak veterinary services must be improved
“We don’t expect to eradicate the H5N1 virus from possible wild bird reservoirs, but we can contain and control it fully in the poultry sector, which is the best insurance we have that it will not mutate into a virus that is easily transmissible among humans,” says Joseph Domenech, Chief Veterinary Officer of FAO. “But, just like a chain with a weak link, we need to find the weak links in the global effort to contain H5N1 and strengthen them. That means building up veterinary and laboratory services in the poorer countries of the world, where public services are hampered by a general lack of funds,” says Domenech.
“This is why FAO is putting so much emphasis on bringing veterinary and laboratory services up to speed; thanks to donor contributions, FAO is able to respond to short term needs of affected and at risk countries, but this effort needs to be sustained in the long term in order to strengthen veterinary services and rehabilitate the animal production sector and the food industry," according to Domenech, “while a more developmental approach is required to resolve structural and institutional limitations.”
Long-term funding needed for long-term problem
FAO has received a considerable amount of funding from donor countries, which has helped the Organization’s efforts to slow and contain the spread of HPAI bird flu. (See link at right for list of donors and contributions). But, according to FAO, the fight against HPAI requires comprehensive and coordinated efforts at the local, national and international levels over a period of several years in order to overcome this animal disease and prevent possible human flu pandemic, and this requires long-term discretionary funding.
“The surest way to contain the H5N1 virus,” says Lubroth, “is through early detection, rapid response and transparent international reporting of outbreaks.”
The virus has killed 141 people worldwide since 2002. In 2006, 64 people died from the virus, up from 41 in 2005, according to WHO.
More than 220 million birds have died from the virus or been killed in culling activities aimed at stopping the spread of the disease.
H5N1 continues to spread mainly through trade and transport
Despite successful efforts in a number of countries to contain the virus, it has spread from the Far East to Europe, the Near East and Africa. Many veterinary experts believe the virus has been spread in the first instance by wild birds and then, after arriving in a new country, is most often spread through poultry trade and transport to wider areas.
It is for this reason that FAO, in close collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), recommends that countries concentrate containment efforts on human activities such as poultry farming, trade and live poultry markets, which are not only the activities most likely to spread the virus, but are also activities that can be inspected, controlled and improved.
FAO and OIE work together to help countries face a large number of animal diseases
While there is little that can be done to control the movement of wild birds, the need to keep domestic birds away from wild birds has been widely recognized and efforts to do so are widespread, according to FAO.
FAO and OIE are working to strengthen veterinary services around the world to fight bird flu and to face a large number of transboundary animal diseases that threaten the livelihoods of people and even national economies.
To fight the disease, FAO has so far received US$67.6 million and has signed agreements with donors for some US$29 million, while another US$25 million has been promised. FAO has disbursed some US$32.5 million since countries pledged US$1.9 billion at a Beijing donor’s conference in January 2006 to support country, regional and global programmes to fight bird flu and prevent a possible human pandemic.
FAO also gives direct assistance to infected countries, countries at risk and newly infected countries and this requires additional support, which depends on the evolution of the situation and the scale of the national programmes FAO is asked to implement.
Information Officer, FAO
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