© FAO/Guillaume Belot

FAO, USAID and SAARC continue building regional preparedness for H7N9 and other avian influenza viruses

23/07/2014

As part of ongoing efforts to reduce the risk of avian influenza in general and H7N9 in particular, FAO gathered experts from seven nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to share experiences and build capacities in avian influenza preparedness. Through a two-day workshop – held in Kathmandu, Nepal on 10-11 July 2014 and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and FAO itself – participants took stock of past activities, shared their latest scientific findings and reviewed best practices to enhance their abilities to detect and respond to H7N9 and other avian influenza viruses. National experts in wildlife, laboratory diagnostics and animal health management met with contingency planners, risk managers and risk communicators from FAO to build a common understanding of the best ways to analyze and reduce avian influenza risks.

A key feature of the workshop was to build relationships among countries and across areas of expertise in order to improve a regional approach.

“Regional cooperation is important because people in the region have a lot in common,” said Dr Naila Siddique, Senior Scientific Officer of the National Reference Lab for Poultry Diseases, Pakistan. “We have similar interests, common values, similar geography, some of the same species of birds, poultry structures and migratory pathways.”

“Consulting with other labs [in the region] allowed us to learn how others are screening for H7N9 and discuss together how to do it better in future,” added Dr Dibesh Karmacharya, International Director of the Center for Molecular Dynamics, a non-governmental organization based in Nepal that tests migratory birds for avian influenza. “Screening migratory birds is important, because migratory birds are the natural hosts of avian influenza viruses and may carry them over long distances,” explained Dr Karmacharya.

The workshop also provided attendees with specific knowledge and tools to take back to their home nations.

“As a molecular biologist, I got an idea of epidemiological practices and risk factors of other countries in order to inform in the higher authorities in my government […] and improve capacities where needed,” said Dr Siddique.

Dr Dulip Kasagala, a veterinary surgeon from Sri Lanka, said that since his island nation is at low risk of H7N9, Sri Lankan systems were logically “not as targeted toward the virus as systems in SAARC countries with higher risk”. However, he added, “learning firsthand the experiences of others at this workshop allows me to take back new ideas to Sri Lanka. We can use them to build on what we already have to better combat avian influenza and other diseases similar in nature.”

The workshop represented the culmination of a year-long initiative implemented by FAO and jointly funded by a USAID project and FAO’s Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP). Focused on protecting public health and livestock-related livelihoods in the SAARC region, FAO has assisted countries sharing a physical border, poultry trade links or migratory pathways with China (i.e. the only country with local transmission of H7N9 to date). Priority areas have included those with high poultry densities and a history of other avian influenza outbreaks, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1.

FAO is now urgently seeking funding to continue global risk reduction and avian influenza preparedness activities. With funding drawing to a close and given the upsurge expected with the impending flu season, additional support is needed now more than ever. By supporting regional approaches to detection, diagnosis and response, FAO remains determined to help countries reduce the risk of incursion and spread of H7N9 and other avian influenza viruses in order to protect public health and poultry-related livelihoods.