|09 November 2010
- Since its emergence, highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 (H5N1 HPAI) has attracted considerable public and media attention because the viruses involved cause fatal disease in animals and humans. In order to improve local and global capacity for evidence-based decision making on the control and management of H5N1 HPAI as well as other high-impact diseases with epidemic potential, the UK Department of International Development (DFID
) funded a collaborative, multidisciplinary Pro-Poor HPAI Risk Reduction
research project for Southeast Asia and Africa. FAO is a partner in this project. This short article summarizes ten key messages arising after three years of project implementation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region.
- The control of H5N1 HPAI in domestic poultry presents unprecedented challenges to the veterinary profession because of (a) the genetic versatility of these viruses, (b) their invasion into large and geographically dispersed domestic poultry populations with high turnover rates, and (c) the possibility of asymptomatic persistence in domestic ducks (and other animal reservoirs).
- Because of the tectonic scale of economic risks to their own countries, posed by the potential of a human-to-human transmissible HPAI virus, OECD economies have given primary global policy attention and financial impetus to actions and measures aimed at reducing risks at HPAI source countries. However, empirical evidence on actual and potential domestic damages and impacts suggests that the OECD Member Countries, as well as China and India, should consider making much larger investments in risk reduction in current and potential epicentres of viral evolution.
- An important source of H5N1 HPAI risk in the Greater Mekong Sub-region stems from the coexistence of diverse poultry production systems and species (e.g. ducks, quail, chicken, geese), millions of households raising poultry primarily for home consumption, an abundance of small-scale market-oriented poultry enterprises linked to consumers through complex market chains and live mixed-bird markets, and the covert transboundary trade that pervades the region, while the role of wild birds in the spread of H5N1 HPAI remains negligible.
Given that H5N1 HPAI now appears to be endemic in parts of Southeast Asia, and that these are learning to live with the disease, it is anticipated that it will be difficult to obtain the level of domestic and (especially) external public resources needed to sustain commitments to national disease risk reduction. As a consequence, control efforts need to be better coordinated at regional level, to enhance their cost-effectiveness.
- At a domestic level, effective public and animal health policies must arise from and be sustained by sound institutions with adequate capacities coupled with coordination at national, regional and local levels. Unfortunately, governmental institutions in the Greater Mekong Sub-region are very diverse in all these aspects, and H5N1 HPAI risk management has in some cases been seriously compromised by pervasive institutional weakness. These weaknesses, and the complex structure of the poultry sector, imply that OECD-style top-down disease control approaches are, in many instances, likely to fail.
- Studies show that publicly-funded blanket vaccination campaigns are costly and appear to be ineffective against H5N1 HPAI in areas with high prevalence of small-scale poultry keepers raising birds in traditional ways (i.e. for home consumption). Targeted vaccination of specific high-risk groups can achieve comparable risk reductions at a fraction of the cost.
- The radial approach to culling birds and destructions of smallholder poultry infrastructure, which are very costly to communities, appear to contribute little to risk reduction and deter broad-based cooperation in disease control programmes. Culling should be limited to infected flocks and high-risk contacts. Infrastructure can be disinfected, but should not be destroyed.
- The attempts to improve the biosecurity of millions of backyard producers in the Greater Mekong Sub-region prove an ineffective use of scarce resources, especially public funds in countries with many other high-priority development objectives. Project studies suggest that interventions targeting market-oriented producers and management of the main poultry flows (from production to consumption centres) are likely to be more efficient and cost-effective.
- Although smallholders comprise the vast majority of poultry keepers in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, they do not presently have a voice in the design of short, medium and long term policies related to the control and mitigation of H5N1 HPAI. Neglecting or omitting this stakeholder group is a grave mistake. It seriously compromises policy effectiveness and legitimacy because smallholding farmers play crucial roles in H5N1 HPAI risk management due to their widespread geographic dispersion and majority status, even if their individual disease risk is comparatively low when compared to industrial poultry farms.
- While keeping the above nine messages in mind, it is critically essential to recognize smallholder poultry producers in the Greater Mekong Sub-region as part of the solution (i.e. effective disease defence) rather than as the problem (i.e. source of infection risk) and enlist them with socially-effective policies that recognize and reward their contribution to the national, regional and global commons of disease defence and resistance. Demand-side, market-oriented polices offer vital opportunities for private cost-sharing and self-directed poverty reduction. For example, certification of poultry value chains and other product quality and food safety initiatives can be self-financed and incentive compatible, which in turn are socially-effective substitutes for open-ended fiscal commitments to public disease monitoring and geographically extensive control measures. Information on these ideas can be found here.
The Animal Production and Health Division (AGA
) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO
) strives to assist Member countries to take full advantage of the contribution the rapidly growing and transforming livestock sector can make towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. In view of the multidimensional threats and impacts arising from H5N1 HPAI, an objective, open, transparent and honest exposition of disease control measures and risk management options enables at-risk and infected countries to assess, choose, implement and/or revisit alternatives available to them.