Combating the menace of avian flu in West Africa

By Iddi Z. Yire

The clarion call by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for $ 20 million to prevent the spread of avian flu across West Africa, deserves serious attention by the international community to combat the disease.

The call, which follows outbreaks of the virus in poultry farms, markets and family holdings in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire, is a step in the right direction.

This is because it would enable West African governments contain the situation; as avian flu could trigger a mass die-off of chicken – a nutritious and inexpensive source of food for many people– with detrimental impacts on diets and on the economy of the region, exacerbating an already difficult situation.

The FAO’s appeal for $ 20 million for prevention and response foresees bolstering weak veterinary systems, improving the capabilities of local laboratories and putting specialists on the ground in affected and at-risk countries.

According to the FAO there are growing fears that without timely intervention to stem outbreaks of the highly virulent avian flu virus H5N1 across West Africa, further spread across the region and beyond is inevitable.

“Based on what we do know, there is a real risk of further virus spread. Urgent action is needed to strengthen veterinary investigation and reporting systems in the region and tackle the disease at the root, before there is a spillover to humans,” said Juan Lubroth, Chief of FAO’s Animal Health Service Division.

Bird flu also known as avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds especially wild water fowl such as ducks and geese caused by a variant of the standard influenza A virus. There are 15 different strains of the virus.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) most avian influenza viruses do not infect humans; however some, such as H5N1 and H7N9, have caused serious infections in people.

The WHO emphasises that there is no evidence that the disease could be spread to people through properly cooked food; however, controlling the disease in animals is the first step in decreasing risks to humans.

The H5N1 strain is the most deadly type of the bird flu virus with 50 per cent of victims dying. Chickens may die without showing any symptoms but typically birds suddenly show swelling about the eyes and ear lobes.

The virus, which is excreted in the droppings of infected birds is transmitted to humans through direct or indirect contacts with infected live or dead birds; hence people working with infected chickens stands the greatest risk.

Symptoms in human include sore throats, coughing and fever. Infected persons could also develop conjunctivitis. The incubation period of the disease in human is three to five days.

The H5N1 virus subtype, a highly pathogenic AI virus, first infected humans in 1997 during a poultry outbreak in Hong Kong SAR and China.

Since its widespread re-emergence in 2003 and 2004, this avian virus has spread from Asia to Europe and Africa and has become entrenched in poultry in some countries, resulting in millions of poultry infections, several hundred human cases, and many human deaths.

Outbreaks in poultry have seriously impacted livelihoods, the economy and international trade in affected countries.

The WHO reiterates that ongoing circulation of H5N1 and H7N9 viruses in poultry, especially where endemic, continues to pose threats to public health, as these viruses have both the potential to cause serious disease in people and may have the potential to change into a form that is more transmissible among humans.

The case fatality rate for H5N1 and H7N9 virus infections in people is much higher compared to that of seasonal influenza infections.

The first incursion of the H5N1 in West Africa occurred in 2006 was eliminated by 2008; however, in late 2014, the virus was re-introduced in Nigeria, where it spread rapidly in the following three months – to date more than 1.6 million birds have been culled or have died from the virus.

Because the disease could be transmitted to humans and is considered highly lethal, FAO is working closely with the WHO on country assessments, contingency plans, offering technical assistance and investigating potential flu cases and the source of infection.

The FAO’s assessment missions to Benin, Cameroon, Mali and Togo – undertaken in collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health, the African Union, and in some cases with the World Bank – have not identified cases of H5N1 in poultry, but these countries and other countries in the Sub-Region need to ensure that prevention and preparedness measures are in place.

In countries which have experienced outbreaks, response interventions include destruction of infected and exposed poultry, disinfection of premises and markets and the safe disposal of dead birds.

Veterinary officers, meanwhile, are encouraged to use basic techniques like “trace-forward” – which looks at where infected animals have been sold or moved to – and “trace backward” – examining where infected animals were purchased or where they came from – to find sources with the ultimate goal of halting continuous virus introduction or further spread.

According to the FAO although quality vaccines are available, the vaccination strategy to be implemented poses certain challenges in some countries and there is always a risk of creating a false sense of security by assuming that the administration of a dose of vaccine will resolve all threats.

It advocates behavioral changes – including enhanced hygiene routines, good poultry production, and safe transportation practices of healthy animals – ought to be at the heart of prevention plans.

As part of efforts to contain the outbreak in the sub-region, effective collaborating with the media, the private sector, particularly poultry and rural or market associations, is crucial to getting the message out to producers and sellers.

In addition, to working with national veterinary offices, FAO recommends that good preparedness plans include close coordination with security forces – military and police – as well as with provincial government leaders, WHO and regional bodies like ECOWAS, to better control outbreaks and prevent spreading across the region of 330 million people.

In Ghana, as part of efforts to contain the disease outbreak, the Veterinary Services Department of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) has temporarily placed a ban on the sale and movement of live birds within Accra to prevent further outbreaks of Avian Influenza in the city and its environs.

Two days after the placement of the ban, a visit by the Ghana News Agency to Central Business District of Accra witnessed that poultry venders at the Makola market have defied it.

The caution given by Dr Hannah Bissiw, the Deputy Minister, MoFA, that the bird flu outbreak could worsen if Ghanaians keep flouting the ban on hawking of birds; should be taken seriously if the fight against the disease outbreak is to be won.

Her caution follows confirmation of traces of the avian influenza virus at the Kantamanto market in Accra; which shows that traders are not taking the ban seriously.

If the battle against bird flu is to be won, then stakeholders especially poultry dealers must adhere strictly to the directive.

The recent approval of GHȼ 2 million by Parliament as compensation package for farmers whose birds have been affected by the outbreak of bird flu is a commendable step, however, the Ministry must take adequate steps to ensure that the package gets to the right farmers.

The contain avian flu situation, West African governments with the support of the FAO must step up efforts by identifying and culling affected poultry flocks, rigorously pursuing quarantine practices and intensifying research into vaccines. GNA

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