FAO Director-General Warns Bird Flu Continues to Threaten Humans

GLOBE - Globalization and climate change favour the spread of animal-borne diseases
calendar icon 4 December 2007
clock icon 4 minute read

Avian influenza could still cause a global pandemic and requires continued vigilance and control efforts particularly in animals, the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Dr. Jacques Diouf, told the New Delhi International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza.

The FAO Director-General warned in a speech that “the spread of avian influenza typifies the potential emergence of major health crises with an increased risk of pathogens travelling over large distances in very short time periods, favoured by globalization and climate change.”

With avian influenza prevention and control programmes being in place for almost four years, many countries have been able to contain or even eradicate the disease. Almost all countries have implemented emergency programmes and have reinforced their health and veterinary services. Despite the immense efforts undertaken by countries and the international community to prevent and control the H5N1 virus, countries are still facing major challenges.

Remaining risks

“The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus continues to circulate in some regions of the world, causing the introduction or reintroduction of the disease in other countries. Extensive outbreak areas remain, particularly in countries where the virus is endemic, with the attendant risk of the emergence of a pandemic virus,” Dr. Diouf said.

“We are still uncertain as to the precise role played by wild birds. There are real risks of viruses emerging against which current vaccines provide no protection. Another major problem is the cost of long-term control programmes and how to finance them. Finally, there is still the difficulty of controlling the illegal movement of products and live animals.”

Robust animal health systems directed by well-equipped veterinary services and supported by a clear political commitment are the key elements for successful avian influenza control campaigns, the FAO Director-General stressed.

Poultry production systems will have to improve biosecurity and hygiene measures in order to prevent virus spread throughout the production chain. “We need a global framework of action that carefully considers the possible adverse social and economic consequences that those changes might bring, especially on the poorest populations and on the livelihoods of backyard poultry keepers,” Dr. Diouf said.

More health crises

The FAO Director-General warned that the international community will have to prepare for other major health crises coming from the animal kingdom.

“The acceleration of international trade will continue, as will climate change, and their impact on ecosystems is already causing the spread of vector-borne diseases into hitherto untouched regions,” he said. “Rift Valley Fever, Bluetongue virus and West Nile Fever are instances of this for insect-borne diseases. But the spread of other epizootic diseases such as Foot-and-Mouth and African Swine Fever are, like avian influenza, other examples that are linked to the intensification of production systems and to the increase in commercial movements, whether controlled or not.”

“Most of the health crises that have occurred in the last ten years have been related to diseases that are transmittable to humans and that have originated in developing countries. Clearly, therefore, the investments that are required to improve health systems need to focus on prevention at source - in animals - and in the countries of the South.”

A total of 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa have been affected by bird flu since 2003, of which 26 countries have experienced outbreaks in 2007. Except for a few outbreaks in wild birds, most of the confirmed outbreaks have been in domestic poultry, including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and quails.

In partnership with national veterinary services, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization (WHO), FAO has played a lead role in combating avian influenza. With FAO’s assistance, more than 130 countries have been able to adopt appropriate prevention and control measures.

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