Over the past several weeks, many Asian countries - including Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and South Korea - have reported fresh outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in bird populations, leading to fears that the virus was returning to countries that were thought to have made considerable progress in stamping out the virus.
But Juan Lubroth, a senior officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Animal Health Service, said the rash of reported outbreaks reflected greater vigilance among authorities and the public, compared with three years ago when the virus spread rapidly and widely before authorities were alerted.
“As the public is more aware, you are hopefully getting more reporting [of bird flu cases],” he said at a meeting in Bangkok of the FAO’s bird flu experts from around Asia. “We are seeing an increase in the capabilities of veterinary services to detect and report these cases. It’s good news that we pick up these cases, especially as they occur.”
Laurence Gleeson, the Bangkok-based head of the FAO’s Emergency Center for Trans-boundary Disease Control, said the current limited flare-ups are a stark contrast to the “galloping epidemic” that swept through the region in 2004.
“The outbreaks are under control,” he said. “If they do occur, resources are there to deal with them.”
However, Indonesia, which has reported five human fatalities from bird flu this year, remains a worrying trouble-spot, he admitted. The H5N1 avian influenza virus is pervasive in the island nation and control efforts are still foundering, due to the scale of the problem and administrative obstacles - including the severe decentralisation of the country’s animal health services. Indonesia last year used just 10 percent of funds that had been made available to compensate farmers for culled birds.
While Asia’s defences against bird flu are being bolstered, African countries are still woefully unprepared, and largely under-funded, to battle the virus, should it spread more widely on the continent, said Cristina Amaral, a senior FAO officer in the Emergency Operations Service.
“There is still an imbalance between what is committed and disbursed in Asia and in Africa,” Amaral said. “Most programmes in Africa are under-funded. If there is the same expansion of H5N1 in Africa, services will have a lot of problems responding in an efficient way.
“In Asia, we had donor support to build technical capacity and work hand-in-hand with the countries,” she said. “But these countries have even less capacity to self-finance their initiatives.”
Meanwhile, in Asia, animal health experts are worried about public fatigue with bird flu campaigns - a factor that may have played a role in its resurgence in Vietnam, which has won accolades for its effort to beat the virus in the past two years.
“The weakness is keeping public and farmers’ engagement and commitment to the process,” said Jeffrey Gilbert, a Hanoi-based expert. “Perhaps a little bit of fatigue is setting in with these vaccination campaigns.”
The FAO has urged Asian countries to be on heightened alert as they move towards the Chinese lunar New Year and Vietnamese Tet holidays, when millions of urban dwellers return to their native villages and there is an upsurge in the transport and slaughter of poultry for festive meals, which could spread the infection.
“We need to have an increased level of alert at this time,” said Gleeson.
Scientists are also worried about recent findings that avian influenza viruses, though not specifically H5N1, may be able to survive in frozen water for up to a year, which could have significant repercussions for the effort to eradicate the virus from the environment.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions