Combating bird flu in animals needs more decisive action
Substantial investments needed to stop the disease
7 November 2005, Geneva/Rome - As the world takes prudent measures to prepare for a major human influenza pandemic, “more decisive action must be taken by affected countries, civil society, the private sector and by the international community to stop bird flu in animals,” said Samuel Jutzi, Director of the FAO Animal Production and Health Division, at the opening of an international conference on bird flu in Geneva today.
“To stop this dangerous and devastating disease requires extraordinary political commitment, very substantial investments, concerted international cooperation, and severe action at the country level,” Jutzi said.
“We still have a window of opportunity to stop the disease in animals. The virus has not yet reassorted or mutated; action is required now; there is no time to lose.”
The circulation of the H5N1 virus in domestic poultry is the core problem. “Controlling the virus in animals is the only way by which the likelihood of the bird flu virus acquiring human-to-human transmissibility can be influenced,” the FAO expert said.
More than 300 animal and human health experts, senior policy-makers, economists and industry representatives are gathering in Geneva to design a strategy to eliminate the virus in animals and prepare for a possible human influenza pandemic.
Bird flu’s economic damage
Since 1996, the spread of bird flu has been devastating to several countries in Asia, where over 150 million chickens and ducks have died from the disease or have been culled. The economic impact on affected countries is estimated at much beyond $10 billion; across South-East Asia, the impact of a single large outbreak was estimated in 2004 to result in the reduction of up to 1.5% of GDP, Jutzi said. The livelihoods of an estimated 200 million poor small farmers have been heavily affected by the disease.
The concentration of over one billion ducks and geese in Asia, many of which are kept in open systems, has provided an effective breeding ground for the myriad of avian influenza viruses circulating in the wild waterfowl pool.
A global investment programme is needed to stop and reduce the circulation of virus in animals to reduce the risk to humans, Jutzi said. “Too much emphasis has been given to the stockpiling of antiviral drugs while the battle against bird flu in animals remains seriously underfunded. This is unacceptable,” he added.
In order to combat bird flu, countries should strengthen their veterinary services and improve local capacity at the farm and market levels. Practices such as isolating poultry, good farm hygiene, use of effective vaccines, close monitoring, and quick culling have proven to be very successful in bird flu control campaigns, Jutzi said.
FAO also stressed the importance of timely reporting of outbreaks and sharing of epidemiological data and of virus samples. “This is crucial to analyze the characteristics of the viruses in order to understand and control the disease and prevent human infection. FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have repeatedly appealed to governments to improve the exchange of viral strains between veterinary and human health scientific communities,” Jutzi noted.
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