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Avian Influenza: An Animal Health Issue

Phil Harris, Information Officer, Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD)
FAO, Rome, Italy
August 2006

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a dangerous disease. Since the most recent chain of outbreaks became known in late 2003, it has claimed well over 200 million chickens (through death caused by the disease or through culling) and more than 140 human lives.1

Behind these stark figures lies a world of fact and hypothesis, where much is known about the nature of the virus that causes the disease but little about its potential to jump to humans and potentially kick off the chain reaction that would qualify the disease as a human pandemic.

FAO is primarily concerned with what is known: with the structure and epidemiology of the H5N1 virus at the centre of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) debate, its impact on birds, and efforts to prevent and control it - in Asia, Africa, the Near East or Europe, where it has already been identified.

At a very broad level, FAO's business is to advise member governments on the best practices to employ in ensuring, among others, that basic food needs are met, that food quality is of the highest level, that an optimum balance is preserved between food production and the necessary level of environmental "exploitation", and that the livelihoods of those involved in food production are safeguarded and promoted.

Where the food concerned is derived from livestock, in this case poultry, FAO has a special responsibility to protect this livestock from all possible threats, whether natural (through, from example, disease or disaster) or man-made (through, for example, destruction of the environmental resources on which it depends). At the level of protection from disease, FAO's role is to advise member governments on the best available veterinary systems and techniques necessary to maintain and improve the wellbeing of poultry.

Further, as the United Nations technical agency responsible for food and agriculture, it is concerned with chickens and other poultry as livestock destined for human consumption, whether raised in a single farmer's backyard for home consumption or in a massive commercial production plant oriented towards national, regional and even international markets.

In Southeast Asia alone, at the micro level, avian influenza has already hit hard many of those whose livelihoods or food supply depend on poultry (and these run into the hundreds of millions of persons that make up 80 percent of the population living in rural areas).

At the macro level, avian influenza has hit the economies of affected countries to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. To the already major direct cost of the disease must be added the enormous global impact of the market shocks caused by publics in various parts of the world turning their backs on poultry products through fear that they are unsafe.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to identify any one culprit, at who or what is responsible for the real damage that avian flu has already wrought, and the potential devastation that it could potentially generate in its wake. There is also a wide array of unanswered questions about the rise and spread of avian influenza.

Some point the finger at migratory birds, others at the mixing of different species on the ground; some accuse poultry farmers while for others the blame lies with traders, both legitimate and illegitimate. Then there are the two opposed camps calling into question the large-scale production systems or the smallholder flocks respectively.

The first group argues that the fault lies with rapidly expanding intensive or industrial farming, the second that avian influenza is above a disease of smallholder poultry, generated by the lack of appropriate hygienic and regulatory standards and practices.

For FAO, individual family concerns and commercial production systems are equally legitimate forms of livestock production. Which is the most relevant depends on a complex mix of environmental, economic, cultural and consumption factors: one system is most appropriate in certain circumstances, the other in different circumstances. Backyard and commercial production systems must co-exist, on condition that both respect the tightest biosecurity practices and procedures. Apportioning the blame to one or the other fails to recognise the role that both play or the complexity of the poultry industry and the pitfalls and benefits of different production environments from a veterinary, social and economic perspective.

Whichever system is called into question, it is clear that avian influenza remains a potential risk to humans but a real risk to animals. Where animal disease poses a potential threat to human health, FAO's role is to advise on the best methods to contain the disease at the level of animals, prevent its recurrence and undertake research to identify ways of eradicating the disease; however, it must also cooperate with other specialised organisations to define ways of avoiding spill over to humans.

The current state of play is that avian influenza is an animal health issue and the focus must be on attacking the problem at source - in animals. The real and potential transmission of bird flu can be described in three phases, animal-animal, animal-human and human-human. The following scenarios may be associated with each of these phases:

    Animal-animal transmission
    • It is a problem for poultry.
    • By extension, it is a problem for those whose living depends on poultry.
    • By further extension, it is a problem for consumers when precautionary measures (good husbandry practices) are not applied.

    Animal-human transmission
    • It is a problem of human health for those who handle diseased poultry or are otherwise in direct contact with sick poultry.
    • The wider the spread and incidence of avian influenza in poultry, the higher the probable number of people whose health will be affected.

    Human-human transmission
    • It could remain localised.
    • It could spread rapidly outside originating locations and even cross boundaries to become a pandemic.

FAO's concern is focused on the first phase but also covers much of the second phase in terms of containing the disease and averting human disease. In advising its member governments on how to combat avian flu at source in animals, FAO stresses the primary and fundamental importance of a strong national veterinary service articulated at local level to improve capacity at farm and market level in order to:

There are proven practices for this, such as isolating poultry, good farm hygiene, use of effective vaccines, close monitoring, and quick culling when necessary. These practices work, and there are success stories in many countries. FAO has been providing advice on how to apply these practices, offering training courses, developing guidelines and manuals, helping equip veterinary laboratories, facilitating access to vaccines, and assisting countries in the design of prevention and control strategies.

It is important that all veterinary activities be effected with the cooperation and understanding of local communities, and that they be defined with an eye to at least maintaining the existing socio-economic conditions of affected individuals/communities, and at best improving these conditions.

Another aspect of FAO's policy is to promote regional networking and information-sharing for improved surveillance and diagnosis of avian flu and for exchanging information on disease incidence and on lessons learned in combating it. It is important that outbreaks be reported in a timely fashion and that epidemiological data and samples are shared.

In this context, FAO cannot give blanket advice - since each individual situation is a case by itself, the control and measures necessary must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, numerous expert missions to affected countries have helped create a general rule of thumb which is that hands-on responsibility for surveillance and reporting, and for the application of remedial measures (such as culling or vaccination), must be devolved to local level to protect communities from possible sources of transmission brought in from outside the community and to protect others from disease transported out from the community.

Further, stressing the local-level component does not mean that a global approach makes no sense. On the contrary, the very fact that avian influenza is a transboundary disease obliges FAO to stress the importance of a coordinated global strategy to fight the disease.

The challenge facing FAO's animal health programme is to better understand the global epidemiology of the disease and design the best prevention and control strategies. This is being done with close attention to the socio-economic consequences of the disease and its management: a small group of experts has been brought together to analyse the actual and potential impact of the disease and control measures on the socio-economic wellbeing of those populations directly concerned and to provide advice on the current and future structure of the poultry industry.

From FAO's point of view, the avian influenza crisis represents an invaluable opportunity to bring together biological and social expertise, sharing the challenge of identifying the risks and proposing those cost-effective measures to combat the disease which carry the lowest possible negative consequences for the rural poor.

1 Figures as of August 2006