Containing the bird flu virus to the greatest extent possible and reducing the risk of infection in poultry and farmed free-range ducks will help to prevent a global human influenza pandemic, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced.
Until 1997, avian influenza had never been known to directly infect humans, but in that year an outbreak of avian influenza type H5N1 infected 18 people in Hong Kong, six of whom died. The virus did not spread easily between humans and did not result in a pandemic. Likewise, the outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza in humans in late 2003 and early 2004 did not result in a pandemic in part because it also did not spread easily from person to person.
“It is in the interest of both developed and developing countries to invest in the control and containment of avian influenza. Our objective is to protect human health -- locally and internationally -- and to promote food security -- and our strategy is to control the disease at source”, said Samuel Jutzi, Director of FAO’s Animal Production and Health Division.
“This means addressing the transmission of the virus where the disease occurs, in poultry, specifically free-range chickens and wetland dwelling ducks, and thus curbing the virus in the region before it spreads to other parts of the world”, Mr. Jutzi told the Regional Meeting on Avian Influenza in Ho Chi Minh City (23-25 February).
“The disease could, in the worst case, lead to a new global human influenza pandemic”, Mr. Jutzi said. “There is an increasing risk of avian influenza spread that no poultry keeping country can afford to ignore.”
Bird flu will probably persist for many years in some of the countries that recently had disease outbreaks, Mr. Jutzi said. Wild birds, particularly ducks, are considered as natural hosts of the bird flu virus and it will, therefore, be very difficult to completely eliminate the disease.
“However, current evidence suggests that trade in live poultry, mixing of avian species on farms and at live bird markets, and poor biosecurity in poultry production contribute much more to disease spread than wild bird movements”, Mr. Jutzi said.
“FAO advises against the destruction of wild birds and their habitats as such practice is unlikely to contribute significantly to disease control and is inappropriate from a wildlife conservation viewpoint”, he added.
Strict biosecurity measures need to be applied throughout the poultry production chain, from farms and small producers to distribution channels, markets and retailers. Public awareness of disease risks must be raised and some traditional practices such as drinking raw blood of ducks need to be changed to prevent further cases of human infection.
Many of the countries affected by bird flu have limited capacity to control the virus. They lack effective diagnostic tools and surveillance systems that are essential for early warning and timely response. “Affected countries need more help to search for infection and conduct analysis. Veterinary services also need access to better tools for diagnosis and disease control, including vaccines that are efficient, cost-effective and safe”, Jutzi said.
He called upon the international community to respond to the urgent requirements of the Asian countries for support in their efforts “to get on top of this current serious situation”.
Countries need help to strengthen central animal health and veterinary public health services; to implement stamping out, vaccination and biosecurity programmes; to develop better diagnostic methods and vaccines; to support regional networks for information sharing, early warning and control strategies.
The FAO said that, in addition to the human suffering, recent avian influenza outbreaks have devastated many local economies. The major impact of the epidemic has been on the livelihoods of rural communities depending on poultry for their subsistence.
Close to 140 million birds have died or been destroyed in the Asian epidemic to date, and loss of their flocks has left many farmers in deep debt. Total poultry farm losses in Asia in 2004 are estimated at more than $10 billion, according to Oxford Economic Forecasting.
The regional conference in Ho Chi Minh City was jointly organized by the FAO and the World Animal Health Organization, in collaboration with the World Health Organization and hosted by the Government of Viet Nam.