How to Stop Bird Flu
By Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General
28 October 2005, Rome - The continuous spread of the deadly avian influenza virus H5N1 in countries outside southeast Asia confirms FAO's warning that bird flu is an international problem that requires a global response.
The virus is currently spreading westwards along the flyways of wild birds and it has arrived at the front door of European countries. We can expect that it will reach the Middle East and countries in Africa in the very near future.
The current bird flu scenario should not cause panic and fear; instead it calls for rational and immediate action to fight the disease at its origin - that means in animals.
Avian influenza is first of all an animal disease that requires a veterinarian response.
The virus can be defeated and contained if countries and the international community work closely together and set up efficient surveillance and diseasecontrol programs. Virus outbreaks in animals need to be detected at a very early stage, infected poultry must be slaughtered and animals at risk have to be vaccinated. Reducing avian influenza in animals contributes directly to protecting people's health.
Developed countries have all the means and tools to respond immediately to an avianinfluenza outbreak.
FAO is more concerned about the epicentre of the disease in southeast Asia, where the virus has become endemic and where some countries are facing heavy virus infection. Furthermore, the potential spread of the virus to African countries could be a disaster, taking the relatively weak human-health and veterinary infrastructures of poor countries into account.
Bird flu should not make us feel powerless.
Affected countries in Southeast Asia are proving that the virus can be successfully contained. Thailand has obtained an impressive reduction of outbreaks through massive investment in controlling the disease in poultry, using slaughtering and improved surveillance and active disease search.
In Viet Nam, improved on-farm hygiene, farming practices, poultry movement controls and vaccination campaigns will reduce the frequency of bird flu outbreaks. Several countries such as Malaysia, South Korea and Japan have eliminated the disease rapidly after the occurrence of new outbreaks.
To win the battle against bird flu, close contacts between humans, domestic poultry and wildlife have to be limited; chickens, ducks and other domestic species need to be kept apart; poultry production must be separated from wild birds to the greatest extent possible; and wildlife markets, especially wet markets in Southeast Asia where wild and domestic animals are kept in cages next to each other, need to be strictly monitored.
Regrettably, most of the public discussion focuses on the human-health aspects of bird flu, while the weak state of veterinary services in many poor countries is being ignored. Affected countries and the international community urgently need to invest more in support of veterinarians and animal health workers, because they represent the first line of defence against the virus.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the World Organisation for Animal Health have developed a detailed global strategy for the control of avian influenza in animals and have calculated the cost of implementation at about $175 million U.S., to support surveillance, diagnosis and other control measures, including vaccination. We are still facing a serious funding gap and have only received around $30 million U.S. to date from Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States.
Countries at risk and the international community need to act rapidly to control avian influenza at source in animals. We cannot afford to wait to battle the disease in pharmacies and hospitals, but need to get rid of the virus in affected farmers' backyards.
Prevention will be cheaper than the cure.
This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Canada.
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