01 February 2017 - The Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) confirmed that the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus that marked the first ever incursion of HPAI in Uganda belongs to the H5N8 subtype. This subtype has been making headlines in the past few months as it spread from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and then Africa (see FAO situation updates), causing massive deaths in a vast number of wild bird species but also outbreaks in poultry.
Early January, Ugandan fishermen informed local authorities of a massive wild bird die-off on the shores of Lake Victoria in Wakiso District. Samples collected from seven dead and two live birds tested positive for H5 HPAI. On 13 January, additional samples from five domestic ducks and a hen were also confirmed to be positive in Masaka District, about 150 km southwest of Wakiso at the western shores of Lake Victoria. Uganda's Ministry for Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries reported the two outbreaks immediately, but further testing was necessary to better characterize the virus.
FAO, with funding made available through the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threat Programme Phase 2 (EPT-2), promptly assisted with laboratory reagents and protocols required to identify the virus sub-type. Samples were shipped by the National Animal Disease Diagnostics and Epidemiology Centre (NADDEC) to the UVRI, where further testing revealed the virus to be H5N8 HPAI.
Advanced genetic analysis will soon tell if this virus is directly related to the one that was first detected in wild birds near Uvsu-Nur Lake in the Russian Federation in June 2016 (see FAO’s EMPRES Watch, September 2016). H5N8 HPAI has since affected 35 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, leading to the death or slaughter of hundreds of thousands of wild and domestic birds. As a matter of comparison, the largest intercontinental HPAI spread ever recorded was due to the H5N1 subtype in 2005-2006 when it affected 20 nations, some of which are still struggling to control the virus today.
The current outbreak poses a major threat to poultry producers in East Africa. Experiences from other countries and the nature of the poultry sector suggest widespread transmission is likely to occur.
The geographical location of Lake Victoria (shared also by Kenya and Tanzania) and its role as a sanctuary for many wild birds raise the concern that neighbouring countries are at high risk of incursion and that detection of the virus in other areas of the region is to be expected over the next weeks. This spread could occur either via wild birds or through trade with infected poultry or poultry products, should the virus become established in poultry populations.
To date, no human case of H5N8 has been reported, despite a now wide geographical distribution of the virus. Good food safety practices and personal protection when handling dead birds should nevertheless be applied in any case. As a general rule, properly cooked poultry products are, however, safe for consumption.
FAO continues to closely monitor the situation and provide technical assistance to affected countries and those at risk. Since the first HPAI detection in Wakiso District, the FAO country office in Uganda has been working hand in hand with the Ministry for Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries and other relevant authorities, providing assistance for outbreak investigation and management. By applying lessons learnt in other countries, FAO is fostering regional approaches for the prevention and control of the ongoing epizootic. It is of utmost importance now to understand where else the virus might already have spread to. Countries in the East African Region with wild bird stopover or congregation sites and where poultry production represents an important part of the livestock sector should be on high alert now.
What can countries at risk do now?
- Raise awareness of the general population, poultry producers or marketers and hunters about HPAI, precautionary measures as well as reporting mechanisms for sick or dead birds;
- Provide mechanisms for reporting sick or dead birds (hotlines, collection points);
- Increase surveillance efforts in poultry and dead wild birds;
- Revise and/or enhance biosecurity measures implemented in farms and markets;
- Ensure means for laboratory testing are in place to detect the currently circulating avian influenza viruses;
- Assess levels of preparedness, notably (but not exclusively) the status of contingency plans, field and diagnostic capacities and material and equipment for rapid response such as disinfectants and personal protective equipment sets;
- Initiate resource mobilization for increased preparedness, communication and, in case of virus incursion, response activities;
- Participate in a regional approach by coordinating activities and sharing information with other countries in the region.