Indonesia reported fewer deaths from bird flu in 2009, but health specialists warn that the risk to humans remains high.
Indonesia's Health Ministry said 20 people were infected with the H5N1 avian influenza virus last year and 19 cases were fatal. The country recorded 24 cases in 2008, 20 fatal.
Since 2005, Indonesia has had 161 bird flu cases, with 134 deaths, making the country's death toll from the virus the highest in the world.
“There has been a lull recently. We have not had positive cases since November,” Health Minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih told reporters on 15 January.
“The trend is similar across the world. Some diseases are seasonal, and we have to continue to be vigilant," he said.
Sedyaningsih said effective surveillance and measures to control the disease in poultry had contributed to the decrease.
However, Gregory Härtl, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, told IRIN: “Our risk assessment has not changed,” with the number of deaths in 2009 very similar to 2008.
According to WHO data, globally, 32 people died of bird flu last year, against 33 in 2008.
Härtl noted that “governments are very aware of the challenge and threat posed by H5N1 and are reacting well”.
Agus Wiyono, director of animal health at Indonesia's Agriculture Ministry, said there had been no major outbreaks of bird flu in fowl over the past three years.
Participatory Disease Searching and Response (PDSR) teams were working to monitor and report cases of bird flu in 70,000 villages, with real-time data available in 10,000 villages, Wiyono said.
“If there are new cases, they will be reported to PDSR. No reports mean there are no new cases of avian influenza,” he said.
Only two of the country's 33 provinces – North Maluku and Gorontalo – are free from bird flu, while West Kalimantan will soon be declared bird-flu free, he said.
|CONFIRMED CASES OF H5N1 IN INDONESIA|
|SOURCE: WHO as of 30 December 2009|
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that 134 villages under surveillance were positive for H5N1 in poultry in October 2009, and the virus was endemic on Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi islands, according to WHO.
However, Chairil Anwar Nidom, a microbiologist at Universitas Airlangga in Surabaya, the provincial capital of East Java Province, cast doubt on the effectiveness of the reporting system.
“It's likely that cases in several regions have gone unreported. The reporting system isn't very good,” he said.
“If we look at the method of transmission, from birds to humans, the situation may have not improved. The risk for humans has not decreased,” he said.
In 2007, backyard chickens were banned in the capital Jakarta and authorities announced plans to relocate poultry farms and slaughterhouses from the city by April this year.
“So far it has not been carried out seriously. I think the Jakarta plan can be used as a yardstick to measure how successful our efforts are to curb bird flu,” Nidom said. “If Jakarta succeeded, other regions would follow suit.”
Indonesia needed to set up a new body after the National Commission on Avian Influenza and Pandemic Preparedness is disbanded in March this year, when its mandate expires, Nidom said.
“The commission has been at the forefront of public education on bird flu. Unless there's a replacement, the public awareness campaign is likely to take a backseat,” he said.
Indonesia stopped announcing individual cases of bird flu last year and the country has been criticized for refusing to share virus specimens, arguing that the current global virus-sharing system under WHO was unfair because poor countries benefited little from vaccine produced by foreign companies.
Health Minister Sedyaningsih said: “We still insist that the responsibility to share viruses should be on an equal footing with the benefits we receive," adding that developing nations insisted that use of specimens shared under the WHO system by third parties, including vaccine manufacturers, required permission from originating countries.