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FAO urges stronger measures on global health threats

World risks new bird flu surge if countries drop their guard

29 January 2013, Rome - The world risks a repeat of the disastrous 2006 bird flu outbreaks unless surveillance and control of this and other dangerous animal diseases is strengthened globally, FAO warns.

"The continuing international economic downturn means less money is available for prevention of H5N1 bird flu and other threats of animal origin.  This is not only true for international organizations but also countries themselves," says FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth.  "Even though everyone knows that prevention is better than cure, I am worried because in the current climate governments are unable to keep up their guard."

Continued strict vigilance is required, however, given that large reservoirs of the H5N1 virus still exist in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, in which the disease has become endemic. Without adequate controls, it could easily spread globally as it did at its peak in 2006, when  63 countries were affected.

Investing makes sense

Investing more in prevention makes economic sense given the huge toll inflicted by a full-scale pandemic. Between 2003 and 2011 the disease killed or forced the culling of more than 400 million domestic chickens and ducks and caused an estimated $20 billion of economic damage.

Like several animal diseases, H5N1 can also be transmitted to humans. Between 2003 and 2011, it infected over 500 people and killed more than 300, according to the World Health Organization. 

"I see inaction in the face of very real threats to the health of animals and people," Lubroth says.

This is all the more regrettable as it has been shown that appropriate measures can completely eliminate H5N1 from the poultry sector and thus protect human health and welfare. Domestic poultry are now virus-free in most of the 63 countries infected in 2006, including Turkey, Hong Kong, Thailand and Nigeria. And, after many years of hard work and international financial commitment, substantial headway is finally being made against bird flu in Indonesia.

Growing threat

Another growing threat is Peste des Petits Ruminants, or PPR, a highly contagious disease that can decimate flocks of sheep and goats. "It is currently expanding in sub-Saharan Africa - causing havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo among other countries - and is just starting to spill over into southern Africa," Lubroth says. "The damage could well be huge".

"The irony is that a perfectly good vaccine exists for PPR, but few people are using it," he adds.  Along with tight finances, lack of political will, and poor planning and coordination are other reasons why PPR and other animal diseases are often allowed to spread.

Investing in prevention means improving hygiene practices, market and border controls, and health security in farms and markets. It includes equipping laboratories and training staff to diagnose and respond to disease outbreaks, and in organizing efficient extension services to serve farmers' needs.

Despite tight budgets, international organizations should also try to do more through concerted action. "We need to come together to find ways to ensure the safety of the global food chain," Lubroth urges.

"The costs - and the dangers - of not acting are just too high."  

Photo: ©FAO/Saheed Khan
With animal disease threats, prevention is better than cure