Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Wild birds expected to spread bird flu virus further

Thailand, 31 Aug 2005 -- Countries along migratory routes of wild birds should be on alert – emergency preparedness essential

The deadly strain of avian influenza that has hit several countries in Asia is likely to be carried over long distances along the flyways of wild water birds to the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and Africa, FAO warned today.

Birds flying from Siberia, where the H5N1 virus has been recently detected, may carry the virus to the Caspian and Black Sea in the foreseeable future. These regions and countries in the Balkans could become a potential gateway to central Europe for the virus.

“FAO is concerned that poor countries in southeast Europe, where wild birds from Asia mingle with others from northern Europe, may lack the capacity to detect and deal with outbreaks of bird flu,” said Joseph Domenech, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer.

Bird migration routes also run across Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and some Mediterranean countries, where bird flu outbreaks are possible, FAO said.

India and Bangladesh, which currently seem to be uninfected, are also considered to be at risk. Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent India, harbour large numbers of domestic ducks and are situated along one of the major migratory routes. They have the potential to become new large endemic areas of bird flu infection, FAO warned.

“Avian influenza is an international problem that definitely needs a strong international response,” Domenech said.

Bird flu has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003 and more than 140 million birds have died or have been slaughtered in the effort to contain outbreaks. Health experts have warned that bird flu has the potential to trigger a global human pandemic if the virus adapts and becomes easily transmitted between humans.

H5N1 keeps spreading

Until recently, bird flu outbreaks mainly occurred in Indonesia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and China. But in July, Russia and Kazakhstan have confirmed H5N1 outbreaks in poultry and wild birds. In Mongolia, about 90 migratory birds died at two lakes in August. Between April and June 2005, more than 6 000 migratory birds died due to H5N1 at the Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve in Qinghai Province, China. In Tibet, China, the death of 133 breeding hens was reported and H5N1 was isolated from samples from these birds.

“These new outbreaks show that the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus is spreading progressively north-westwards and is not restricted to South East Asia any more,. In Russia and Kazakhstan, we believe contact between domestic poultry and wild waterfowl at lakes and wetlands is the primary source of infection in poultry,” Domenech said.

Preventing the spread of bird flu

FAO urged countries at risk, especially along the routes of migrating birds, to step up surveillance of domestic poultry and wild birds. Countries should prepare national emergency plans.

Close contacts between humans, domestic poultry and wildlife should be reduced and closely monitored. On farms and markets, domestic birds should be strictly separated from wild animals to the greatest extent possible. Vaccinating poultry could also be considered in at-risk situations. .

Fighting the virus at source

FAO called upon affected countries and the international community to battle the bird flu virus at its origin, in poultry. “As long as the H5N1 virus circulates in poultry, humans continue to be at risk. This is why we have set up several regional networks in Asia to improve the cooperation between countries,” Domenech said.

FAO and the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) have also developed a strategy for the control of avian influenza in Asia that will cost over $100 million, to support surveillance, diagnosis and other control measures, including vaccination. So far, donors have pledged around $25 million in support of the strategy.

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