Enemy at the gate: saving farms and people from bird flu
Asia reels from bird flu - Disruption of family life, diet, regional economy
Impact figures for the avian influenza epidemic are staggering even for a continent the size of Asia. More than 140 million birds have died or been destroyed. Combined losses to gross domestic product (GDP) are estimated at US$10 billion to US$15 billion. As of early 2005, forty-two people have died of the flu. An FAO study estimates that in Viet Nam alone, the disease has touched 36 000 people living on the edge of poverty and 88 000 who were already poor.
Ten countries are affected: Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and Viet Nam.
"Avian influenza is much more dangerous than other poultry diseases," says Dr Nguyen Duy Long, Director of Long An Animal Health Sub-department, Viet Nam. "It takes more time to identify than other diseases. The economic losses are huge, much larger than with other diseases. It cost us 200 billion dong (US$12 million) last year in this province alone."
Over this bleak landscape sits a black cloud of fear that the virus might become adapted to enable human-to-human transmission and then spread around the globe.
"The threat to human health will persist as long as the problem persists in animals," says Dr Peter Horby, a public health expert with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Hanoi, who works closely with FAO in the fight against bird flu in Viet Nam. "There are other diseases that cross from animals to humans, but bird flu is the most pressing issue. It is clearly an endemic problem and a definite risk to humans."
In the stories you will find linked on the right, those hit by and those hitting back at avian flu describe in their own words their hardships and struggles, but also what is working against the epidemic. This Focus on the issues covers three countries hit hard by the disease: Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Government officials and technical experts in the affected countries now know what to do, advised and assisted in the first year of the epidemic by FAO, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and WHO.
But the affected countries cannot defeat the epidemic alone.
"I would like to appeal for donor support," says Dr Bui Quang Anh, Director-General of the Department of Animal Health, Viet Nam. "We have had a big increase in animal production in Viet Nam and we have long borders with other countries, both of which make control difficult. We specifically need help in diagnosis, to equip labs for analysis of dangerous infectious diseases."
Across Asia, hundreds of millions of dollars are needed urgently to strengthen animal health services and laboratories, improve virus detection, provide proper inspection at control posts and marketplaces, begin restocking of flocks throughout the countryside, restructure the poultry sector, and continue to conduct public awareness campaigns with the ultimate goal of eradication. Only through controlling the problem in chickens and ducks can the risk to human health be reduced in Asia and worldwide.
FAO: a world leader on animal health
Since its founding in 1945, FAO has built up its expertise and reputation as a world leader on animal health and production. In transboundary animal diseases, the Organization was providing leadership and technical expertise as far back as 1954, when foot-and-mouth disease ravaged postwar Europe.
In the avian influenza crisis that began in Asia in late 2003, FAO's roles are many: technical assistance, policy advice, provision of laboratory equipment, protective clothing and training, agency and donor coordination, contingency planning, technical information and guidelines, and public advocacy. The Organization works hand in hand with the OIE and, because of the threat to human health, with the WHO as well.
Many donors channel their money for emergency response through FAO because it can coordinate actions among affected countries as well as among donors. Good coordination reduces the risk of duplicate purchases of goods and services in any given country -- a possibility if funding comes from multiple sources.
Appropriate, timely help
"FAO and OIE sent experts at the beginning of the outbreak to help us draw up an emergency plan," recalls Dr Bui Quang Anh, Director-General of the Department of Animal Health, Viet Nam. "We had never had this problem before."
Dr Anh said he benefited from an FAO avian flu study trip to the Netherlands in 2003, after the disease had broken out in that country but before it erupted in Viet Nam.
"FAO plays a key role for my country. Its technical advice was very helpful, for example, in diagnosis, surveillance, choosing experts, training and so on," says Dr Chaweewan Leowijuk, Deputy Director General of the Department of Livestock Development, Thailand.
Developing countries are used to working with FAO on livestock, a cornerstone of their rural economies. As Dr Tri Satya Putri Naipospos, Director of Animal Health in Indonesia, put it: "FAO is an international organization that deals with animal transboundary diseases on a regional basis. They have all the expertise."
Or as Dr Carolyn Benigno, one of the veterinarians in FAO's regional office in Bangkok, says about Asian governments, "When there's a problem, they know who to contact."
11 April 2005
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