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News & features archive, 2011

The science against avian influenza in Viet Nam is sponsored by donors

© FAO/Hoang Dinh Nam

27 July 2011 - Between 2003 and 2011, a total of 63 countries and territories throughout the world have experienced outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza A subtype H5N1 (H5N1 HPAI) in domestic poultry and/or wild birds. These countries and territories can be clustered into four geographical locations: Africa (12), Asia (18), Europe (26), and Near East (7). Also, from 2003 to 2011, the cumulative number of confirmed human cases of H5N1 HPAI reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) is 562; of these 329 have died. The majority of human cases occurred in four countries: Egypt, Indonesia, People’s Republic of China, and Viet Nam.

While it is true that H5N1 HPAI may have escaped the frightening newspaper headlines of the last few years, it is far too early to turn the page on avian influenza. Currently, scientists in Viet Nam have their heads busy and hands full figuring out how to beat back a vaccine-resistant strain of virus currently killing chickens and ducks in scattered pockets in the northern part of the country. In this scientific endeavor that requires economic and physical resources as well as technical expertise, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are assisting Viet Nam.

To give some dimension of the problem H5N1 HPAI represents to variegated poultry producers in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese Department of Animal Health has said that, over the past eight years, authorities have had to cull 63 million poultry in 40 of the country’s 63 provinces. But this is only the impact on animals. With regards to humans, of the 119 cases of H5N1 HPAI reported in Vietnam since 2003, 59 have been fatal. Most of Vietnam’s infections over the past eight years have come during recurrent waves of outbreaks around Tet festivities, the annual Lunar New Year celebrations in January or February when millions of people, chickens, ducks, and geese are on the move, often closely together, making it much easier for viruses to spread.

Authorities at the Vietnamese Department of Animal Health believe that with continued donor support the country can maintain its position and gain more results, setting its priorities on research and other activities for influenza control in the country. This is particularly relevant at this juncture given that experts at the National Center for Veterinary Diagnosis (NCVD) detected a reemerged clade 2.3.2, which is a specific virus strain characterized as highly pathogenic and one of ten virus groups detected in Viet Nam over the years.

Many of the experts and scientists studying and monitoring viral clades and the movement of viruses in Viet Nam are virologists at the NCVD and eight regional laboratories. Since 2006, they have received funding and technical support from USAID and FAO. The determination that vaccines currently used in the country were ineffective against some viruses of the 2.3.2 strain has moved Viet Nam to postpone new vaccinations until an effective vaccine can be developed.

In response, USAID is working with international reference laboratories to find an effective vaccine that can then be tested by the NCVD. USAID and FAO are also currently wrapping up a large-scale, two-year operational research project at the provincial level to identify best practices and policy guidance on a safe, effective, and sustainable poultry vaccination strategy to limit the spread of bird flu. For its part, FAO is always open to work with donors to assist member states.

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