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Fewer Bird Flu Outbreaks This Year

Armen Hareyan's picture

Bird Flu Rates

Despite substantial progress in global efforts to bring the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus under control, the disease continues to spread to new countries and to new areas in some countries where containment has not been successful.

The virus continues to threaten the lives of people living and working around poultry, while hurting farm incomes and reducing the availability of nutritious food.

The most serious threat from H5N1 is that each human case contracted from poultry offers a new possibility for the virus to mutate into a form that can spread rapidly from person to person. Should that happen, UN officials say, a pandemic claiming millions of human lives could follow.

Since the disease first surfaced in 2003, H5N1 has killed at least 171 people worldwide, 66 in Indonesia, the highest human death toll of any country.

Fewer cases of H5N1 outbreaks seen this year

According to FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer, Joseph Domenech, 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. The presence of H5N1 in wild birds is less than it was last year when we saw a surge in the virus, particularly in Europe. Also there is more transparency, better surveillance and improved and timelier reporting of outbreaks".

Bird flu outbreaks have occurred in 56 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe since 2003. In 2006, 53 countries reported HPAI outbreaks; this year, so far, 17 countries have been affected.

Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria have not yet been able to contain the disease, effectively making them reservoirs of the virus for possible introduction to other countries, according to FAO veterinarians.

Success stories in three countries

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Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam have been generally successful in containing and controlling the virus. In Thailand there has not been a human case of the disease since August 2006.

Vietnam has seen sporadic outbreaks of the disease among poultry. Three outbreaks of HPAI H5N1 were reported on three farms with unvaccinated duck flocks. However, say FAO veterinarians, animal health authorities have been able to contain the outbreaks quickly and have prevented the spread of the disease.

Turkey eradicated the bird flu virus in March 2006, according to FAO officials, but new outbreaks occurred in January and February this year. It is assumed that wild birds may have been the source of this virus introduction, which was soon transferred to peri-urban poultry farms where it was successfully contained. FAO calls the Turkish response to this most recent outbreak of avian flu "a highly successful control campaign."

Three countries facing serious difficulties

In Indonesia, only three provinces out of 33 are free from bird flu, according to FAO. The disease remains endemic in Java, Sumatra, Bali and South Sulawesi with sporadic outbreaks in other parts of the country. Surveillance is still being ramped up with FAO's village-based Participatory Disease Surveillance (PDS) system now operating in 130 of 444 districts of the country, however, information on outbreaks nationwide will remain spotty until more districts are covered by the PDS system.

Control of avian flu in Indonesia has been hampered by the country's large size and geography with some 17,000 islands spread over three time zones, a weak national veterinary service, as well as insufficient international and national financial and human resources invested in prevention and control.

In Egypt, H5N1 outbreaks have occurred on four commercial farms and 13 cases were reported from in backyard poultry farms since the beginning of March. As of mid-February, 24 human cases were confirmed, of which 13 were fatal. Egypt has faced problems containing the disease for a number of reasons, including the lack of compensation to help farmers who lose their poultry to culling. The country is revising its strategic plan for HPAI control with the assistance of FAO and other international partners.

Despite continuous control measures, HPAI has spread in Nigeria to many parts of the country, because authorities have not been in a position to enforce effective movement control for poultry and poultry products out of infected areas.

Bird flu continues to spread to new countries

In March bird flu was detected on farms in Bangladesh for the first time. This is not surprising, says FAO: the virus continues circulating in the wider region and the introduction of the virus by migratory birds in the country cannot be ruled out, as it is situated on important avian flyways.

According to Dr. Domenech, "The risk of a pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future. However, looking on the positive side, many countries have managed to control the disease. Many have also eradicated the virus. The negative side is that the virus still circulates in some countries in Asia and Africa. Egypt and Indonesia are heavily infected, as is Nigeria, though to a lesser extent. 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."