Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bird Flu: Experts to Shift Focus

Bird flu: Experts to shift focus


HANOI. Mid-size traders and farms that sell poultry to small farmers could act as avian flu transmission hubs and there needs to be better biosecurity at that level, a top United Nations expert said yesterday.

Bird flu outbreaks have generally been dealt with by culling birds, but health authorities are now trying to look up the supply chain to identify possible sources of infection, said David Nabarro, the UN’s senior coordinator for avian and pandemic flu.

"We are finding that if we have a much clearer understanding of the patterns of movement of the virus, and in particular build-up points, we can then do much more sophisticated control strategies that have less economic damage for poorer people and more impact," he told Reuters in a telephone interview from Geneva.

"It’s the medium-sized commercial poultry traders who have yet to introduce good quality biosecurity that are the ones on whom we are focusing most of our attention these days."

Nabarro is participating remotely in the two-day International Ministerial Conference on Animal and Pandemic Influenza that started in Hanoi yesterday.

He could not attend in person because of flight cancellations due to the ash cloud over Europe.

Since 2003 the H5N1 strain of bird flu has has infected a confirmed 493 people and killed 292, or nearly 60 percent. Most of the deaths have been in Asia.

Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, said better management of animal stocks and farms was needed, but he worried that the message was not getting through.

"We need to invest more in upstream approaches," he said in Hanoi.

"We need to do a better job at improving some of these instabilities that we as humans have created with the mismanagement of natural resources, or increasing populations of susceptible animals, or the way we market and produce these without the proper veterinary inspection."

He estimated that the mid-sized farms Nabarro mentioned accounted for 60-70 percent of farmed animals, but said systems were not in place to comprehensively monitor diseases among animal populations that may become a threat to humans.

"Not just influenza, we want to be tracking other pathogens of concern — and not just emerging infectious diseases, there are some very old diseases that we know about that we are not doing enough about such as rabies or tuberculosis or foot and mouth disease," he said.

Almost all of the human H5N1 infections to date were believed to have taken place directly from birds to humans, but health experts fear it could mutate to a form that could be easily transmitted human-to-human, sparking a deadly global pandemic.

There have been two sizeable clusters so far — one in which eight family members died on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in 2006 and another in Turkey in which eight people were infected and four died.

In the Sumatra case, the virus went on for two generations and then stopped — a 37-year-old woman was believed to have infected her 10-year-old nephew, who went on to infect his father.

Another smaller probable case of human-to-human transmission occurred in Thailand in 2004, where a mother died after tending to her sick daughter for hours.

The conference in Hanoi brought together hundreds of officials from around the world and Nabarro said they would assess avian influenza prevention and look at systems for pandemic response. — Reuters.

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