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FAO calls for continued vigilance in face of H7N9 avian influenza

Asia needs to strengthen biosecurity measures and surveillance

14 June 2013, Rome – FAO has urged countries in Asia to remain vigilant in the face of the avian influenza A(H7N9) virus. The best way to protect people and animals against the virus is to continue raising public awareness and strengthening biosecurity on farms and along the poultry value chain. Monitoring for the virus should also continue and requires interaction and building trust between regulatory officials, veterinarians, physicians and poultry farmers and sellers.

“While it is encouraging that China’s vigorous control measures, temporary closure and disinfection of live bird markets together with other rapid response interventions to the avian influenza A(H7N9) emergency have resulted in an apparent halt of new human cases being reported, the virus remains a significant global threat. We must not be lured into thinking the work is done,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer.

“Since poultry infected with this virus look apparently healthy, the virus may still be circulating unseen in the animal population. The risk to humans remains,” Lubroth explained.

“Therefore, it is imperative to carry out and maintain targeted surveillance in animal populations to understand where the virus is and how widespread it might be. We also need to protect the areas that are virus-free,” Lubroth said.

Since the virus was first reported in humans at the end of March, FAO has been working with national veterinary and human health authorities in Asia as well as with international partners such as the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the international scientific community to: i) better understand risk factors; ii) identify the animal source of this new virus and its geographical extent; and iii) learn more about the characteristics of the virus itself.

Most human cases have been associated with live bird markets. The virus has been difficult to find in animals. The majority of positive bird and environmental samples come from live bird markets. With the infection in poultry hard to detect and as live bird markets begin to re-open in China, good biosecurity measures become even more essential to reduce the risk of virus circulation in animal populations and to eventually prevent transmission from animals to humans.

“Good biosecurity and hygiene measures implemented by farmers, livestock producers, transporters, market workers and consumers represent the first and most effective way to protect the food chain and human health as well as livelihoods," Lubroth said.

Influenza A viruses, and in particular those seen in the last two decades in Asia, such as H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza, constantly circulate within animal and human populations, mixing and mutating, until sometimes they re-emerge with increased virulence. Influenza viruses also follow seasonal patterns, with the typical lull period beginning in the warm summer months. The globe’s northern hemisphere, including almost all of Asia, normally experiences a cyclical increase in influenza outbreaks late in the year. This underscores the importance of continuing surveillance and strong biosecurity carried out together with human health services to protect animal and human health, livelihoods and consumer confidence.

FAO continues to provide technical support to member countries. In Asia, FAO is assisting countries to: i) assess the risk of introduction and spread of the avian influenza A(H7N9) virus; ii) enhance biosecurity; and iii) plan and prepare an effective response.

FAO has also issued recommendations for government authorities and veterinary services to guide decision making in managing the response to the H7N9 situation. “Addressing the avian influenza A(H7N9) emergency,” is a series of four publications based on extensive expert consultation in FAO and with top international experts. The publications are entitled: 1. Risk Management along the Food Chain; 2. Guidelines for emergency risk-based surveillance; 3. Emergency risk assessment summary; and 4. Laboratory protocols and algorithms (to be published soon). The FAO office in China has been jointly working with the national authorities to gain a better understanding of the origins of this new virus and to identify critical control points for implementation of prevention and disease control measures along the production and market chain. FAO offices in countries in the region at risk of virus introduction have also been working with their government counterparts to step up surveillance and review contingency and control plans. Increased surveillance activities have been funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

FAO has also developed three Technical Cooperation Projects for coordinated global and regional emergency response.