Global experts work together to fight highly pathogenic avian influenza

Trying to stay ahead of HPAI outbreaks

More than 285 avian influenza experts and stakeholders convened at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome for a three-day consultation on the highly pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in May.  The hybrid event saw a gathering of key players - leading scientists, policymakers, private sector including poultry associations, Regional Economic Communities and industry representatives - in the field of avian influenza to discuss the current state of the disease, latest scientific and technical advances and explore potential strategies for controlling the disease.

HPAI is a viral disease that primarily affects birds but can potentially infect humans. It is highly contagious and can cause significant economic losses in the poultry industry and devastation of smallholder livelihoods as they have limited resources and infrastructure to implement biosecurity measures on their farms. In addition, it poses a serious public health risk, as it has the potential to mutate and cause a global pandemic.

Over the last couple of years, the H5 HPAI virus has caused a pan-zoonotic - an epidemic spreading across multiple animal species over a large geographic area. Since January 2021, the global community has reported over 121,900 disease events caused by this virus affecting at least 101 countries in Africa, the Americas, and Eurasia, spreading to both wild and domestic bird populations. It has raised more concern since it appeared in at least 20 countries and territories. Moreover, it has caused infection in more than 400 wild bird species and has spilled over to various terrestrial and marine mammalian species.

During the opening session, Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General at FAO emphasized that HPAI is a huge concern for wildlife conservation and has significant biodiversity impacts.

“We are losing species and this is an excellent example of why we need to join forces and work together on upstream prevention. We have to deal with the disease, as figures show that you can have a 1:5 return on investment through early prevention,” said Semedo.

She acknowledged that a cross-sectional One Health approach is necessary to tackle such a complex challenge at global and national level, as it cannot be solved by one ministry or sector alone.

"I thank again our institutional partners, the Quadripartite - FAO, World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH), World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – with whom we collaborate closely. HPAI is a global priority disease under the Joint FAO/WOAH Global Framework for Progressive Control of Transboundary Animal Diseases (GF-TADs). We are working together to revise the global avian influenza control strategy, which will include the key outcomes and evidence from this meeting,” said Semedo.

Bird's eye view: staying ahead of avian influenza outbreaks

Focusing mainly on prevention and control, the consultation addressed these elements through a series of panel discussions and workshops with participants sharing their experiences and best practices in combatting HPAI.

Prevention through improved biosecurity, vaccination programs, and early detection and reporting systems is critical in controlling the spread of HPAI.

According to the FAO Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Manager, Charles Bebay, one cannot prevent what they don't know.

"Despite notable recent outbreaks of HPAI in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, there is still a lack of data at the regional and national levels which is key if we are to better understand the patterns and spread of avian influenza and take proactive measures to prevent future outbreaks," says Bebay.

Moreover, actively promoting good practices, early detection and implementing movement controls, plays a critical role in containing outbreaks of the disease. Implementing these measures can make all the difference in preventing the spread of HPAI.

Viet Nam exemplifies a country that has taken the threat of avian influenza seriously. Despite experiencing multiple outbreaks of the disease in the past, the national government has implemented various control measures to limit the spread of the virus.

“We have suffered avian influenza outbreaks in the last 20 years. And what we have observed is that continuous and diligent application of biosecurity measures like disinfection of poultry farms, use of protective clothing by farmers, and restriction of movement of birds goes a long way in preventing the spread of the disease,” says Dr. Nguyen Thi Diep, Acting Head, Epidemiology Division Department of Animal Health of Viet Nam.

“At the local level, close coordination between the public health and animal health sector is also important , especially to raise public awareness on avian influenza. Additionally, joint risk assessment to identify high risk areas, as well as early warning surveillance and response, have worked well in keeping the disease at bay,” says Diep.

Through these coordinated prevention and control measures, at the national, regional, and global levels, including the development of contingency plans, capacity building, and research, Member countries are better placed to contain outbreaks.

Knowledge sharing for tackling avian influenza

As the ongoing threat of HPAI continues, collaboration and cooperation across all sectors and stakeholders are key.

From scientists, governments, and international organizations to local communities, stakeholders come together to share their knowledge and experiences. Through collaboration, we can pool resources and expertise to enhance surveillance efforts at the virus entry points on the poultry value chain and in wild bird populations.

This is where OFFLU, the FAO/ WOAH Network of Expertise on Animal Influenza, comes in.

This group of animal influenza experts from all around the world is dedicated to working together and sharing their technical expertise on various aspects of avian influenza epidemiology and ecology. According to David Swayne, steering committee member of the OFFLU network, this collaboration is crucial for improving the understanding of animal influenza viruses and their potential impact on human health.

But sharing knowledge isn't just important for experts - it's essential for the global community as a whole. By constantly sharing information and best practices from different regions, we can work together to develop evidence based prevention and control measures. And this not only protects the health and well-being of animals, but humans too.

"The global strategy on avian influenza was last updated in 2008, which does not reflect the many advancements made in the knowledge and the changes in epidemiology of the virus," says Madhur Dhingra, Head of the Emergency Prevention System for Animal Health (EMPRES-AH) at FAO.

"During the consultation period, experts analyzed the epidemiological knowledge and ecology of the HPAI virus in both poultry and wild birds and recommended approaches for surveillance, diagnosis, prevention, and control. These recommendations will update the joint FAO and WOAH global strategy on the control of avian influenza later this year which is a significant step forward in the fight against the disease," says Dhingra.

As the curtains draw on the Global Consultation on HPAI, it is clear that the collaborative efforts of a diverse array of stakeholders have yielded fruitful results. From the world's leading experts in avian influenza to international organizations and regional economic communities, this consultation provided a platform for constructive dialogue and cross-sectoral collaboration. This is truly One Health in action where so many stakeholders come together with a common goal of mitigating the risks associated with HPAI.

The Global Consultation on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) was organized through the support of partners, in particular the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the FAO Members’ contributions.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

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