03 February 2014 - Following the emergence of the novel influenza A(H7N9) virus in China, countries in Africa have been encouraged to increase their preparedness for the new low pathogenic strain of avian influenza. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Union's Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) identified the need to invest in a project that would assist selected African countries to: (i) conduct regular risk assessment on H7N9; (ii) implement risk-based surveillance; and (iii) update their contingency plans.
These countries were selected according to the following criteria: (i) trade with China; (ii) high density of poultry; and (iii) a history of infection with H5N1. Most of these countries had already established surveillance systems and contingency plans to combat the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, which hit Africa in 2006. However, with the advent of low pathogenic A(H7N9), these surveillance and contingency measures need to be updated.
The main difference between the two virus manifestations is that birds that have contracted A(H7N9) do not show clinical signs unlike those infected with the H5N1 virus. A risk-based approach is necessary to identify critical points of entry where surveillance should be targeted and risk management measures enhanced. Such measures include cleaning and disinfection of live bird markets and introducing market rest days with no poultry, among others. Unlike with H5N1, migratory birds and ducks do not seem to play a role in spreading the A(H7N9) virus. The highest risk of spread is associated with legal or illegal trade of live birds through humans, and the avian species most implicated so far are chickens, quail and pigeons.
Until additional donor support can be mobilized to further assist African countries at risk, FAO and AU-IBAR recommend that countries use their own resources to: (i) conduct risk analysis; (ii) identify possible points of entry for the virus in order to target their surveillance; (iii) enhance biosecurity in live bird markets; (iv) strengthen their laboratory capacities on Influenza A diagnosis; and (v) adapt contingency plans developed for H5N1 to the challenges represented by the different epidemiology of the A(H7N9) virus. These measures will better prepare countries for a potential A(H7N9) incursion.
The launch of this project took place in Nairobi, Kenya from 21 to 22 January 2014 with the participation of Chief Veterinary Officers from 11 of the selected African countries and representatives from AU-IBAR, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), FAO, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The objectives of the workshop were twofold. The first was to agree on an agenda for the activities that would take place under the project. The second was to reflect on the new challenges the countries face with the potential introduction of the A(H7N9) virus and the required mitigation measures.
The Nairobi workshop was an occasion to revise the workplan for 2014. Among the many discussions which took place, participants placed greater emphasis on good risk communication practices and the need to explore potential sources of additional funding in order to implement the necessary actions identified through risk analysis. As part of capacity building on potential introduction and spread of A(H7N9), FAO and AU-IBAR are now planning a regional workshop for professionals from the selected countries' epidemiology units in the first half of 2014 in order to assist with the implementation of value chain and risk analyses.