18 December 2014 - The influenza A(H7N9) virus emerged in China early 2013 and has since caused over 460 human cases, of which 38 percent had a fatal outcome. H7N9 is an avian influenza virus that causes no disease signs in birds and can therefore spread undetected in poultry populations, putting people at risk. In January 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Union’s Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) therefore launched a project to increase preparedness against this novel virus in 11 African countries assessed to be at low or moderate risk of virus incursion. As the year-long project reached its conclusion, focal points from eight participating countries (Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and the United Republic of Tanzania) met with officials from FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in Yaoundé, Cameroon, to discuss the achievements, collectively review the outputs of the project and discuss challenges encountered as well as the way forward.
The objective of the project was to assist selected countries to: (i) increase their epidemiological knowledge of the H7N9 virus; (ii) conduct a risk assessment for their country (entry, exposure and consequences); (iii) conduct a poultry value-chain study; (iv) develop a response plan including risk-based surveillance and contingency plan; and (v) increase their laboratory capacity.
As part of the project activities a one-week training workshop was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in May 2014 for epidemiologists and laboratory experts from all selected countries to increase capacities (see related news). The training was highly appreciated by participants who then applied the knowledge and skills learned in their national contexts over the following months.
As the only endemic country in Africa for influenza A(H5N1), Egypt was selected as the country in which to conduct tests on poultry farms and in markets for this project. Furthermore, it already has an established surveillance programme in place for avian influenza rendering it the most feasible country in which to conduct sampling. Following a risk-based approach, a total of
4 024 samples were collected from March to September 2014 and tested but no H7N9 virus was found.
During the meeting in Yaoundé, poultry value-chain studies performed by each country were collectively reviewed and discussed. The studies showed that the value chains in all countries were linked to other continents, mainly Europe and Asia, through importation of day-old-chicks or fertile eggs. Some countries had trade links with China, before H7N9 emerged, while others had recent trade relations on feeds and feed additives. Links between the value chains of the selected countries were also observed. The least biosecure value chains were those of indigenous poultry, which make up a large part of the poultry population in these countries. FAO will prepare a consolidated report on these studies highlighting the trade links associated with higher risk and critical control points to be disseminated to African countries in early 2015.
Participating countries also presented and discussed their response plans. During this session, several experts reviewed and commented on the plans to help the national focal points in revising them before submitting the final documents to their respective Ministries of Agriculture.
Finally, this workshop also served as an opportunity to share information on the novel highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N8 virus which also poses a serious threat to African countries. From its emergence in January until October 2014, this virus was responsible for 42 poultry outbreaks, mainly in the Republic of Korea, but also in China and Japan. This November, Germany reported the first outbreak in Europe, followed shortly by the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (see related news). No H5N8 human case has been detected and the risk of human infection is believed to be extremely low according to the World Health Organization. However, the threat to poultry-related livelihoods and economies is twofold: (i) the virus causes high mortality in chickens and turkeys; and (ii) the control measures implemented to further curb the spread include culling of all poultry in the infected zone or of those with epidemiological links to infected farms or markets. The virus has also been found in many different wild bird species in Asia, but also in a common teal in Germany. Epidemiological investigations, along with genetic analysis suggest that wild migratory birds might have played a key role in the spread of the virus from Asia to Europe. Considering that poultry trade routes and several migratory flyways link Europe, Asia and Africa, there is a real risk of HPAI H5N8 virus being introduced into Africa.
Influenza A(H7N9) remains a global concern even if the disease has so far only been reported in China. The meeting recommended that African countries remain vigilant and monitor the global trend of avian influenza viruses, especially since novel reassortant viruses continue to emerge, threatening animal health, public health, and sometimes both.