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On alert for avian flu

Sri Lanka has so far averted an outbreak of avian influenza with preventive measures, but the island nation is stepping up vigilance as the deadly virus flares up in other South Asian nations.

Restrictions on poultry imports and surveillance of domestic and wild birds helped keep the country disease-free until now, but authorities are concerned that with bird flu appearing in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, that status could be threatened.

“Sri Lanka has been fortunate not to have been affected so far,” said S. K. R. Amarasekara, director-general of the government’s department of animal production and health. “But, now, the danger is stronger and we are getting prepared [to meet the threat]. We are working out how to cope with it,” he told IRIN.

Among the key measures being considered, he said, is closer monitoring of wild waterfowl from temperate countries that roost annually in the island’s tropical wetlands. Regarded as a likely source of infection, the visiting birds, which are in Sri Lanka typically between September and April, have been subjected to scrutiny, with their droppings, saliva and other secretions being collected and analysed systematically.

Health authorities hope to intensify the checks on the migrants and on local poultry that share the same water sources.

Authorities are also planning to identify the gaps in the US$16 million preventive and emergency response programme under way. Upgrading laboratory facilities, equipping hospitals, and ironing out the legal issues arising from activities such as culling infected birds are among the steps being taken, Amarasekara said.

The World Health Organization (WHO), a key member of the government’s task force, considers avian flu a serious threat to Sri Lanka, despite its having been pushed back as a priority with the resurgence of the conflict between government troops and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Sri Lanka considered a high-risk country

“Sri Lanka is still considered a high-risk country in terms of being close to countries which already have avian flu,” said Hendrikus Raaijmakers, emergency health management specialist at WHO. “But, unfortunately, since late last year, the conflict has taken over in emphasis.”

He conceded, however, that Sri Lanka was on the alert. “For a country that hasn’t had avian flu, Sri Lanka is one of the best prepared. The next step is to fully implement the prevention plan that is already in place,” Raaijmakers said.

The government imposed a ban on the import of live chickens and poultry products from infected countries and began surveillance of wild bird populations in 2003.

''Poultry farmers need to be better informed about how to protect themselves and their workers. At the moment, there is not enough information coming through to the people on the ground.''

Health officials in Colombo have expressed concern that with the embattled north and east of the island left out of the surveillance and prevention programme, the virus could very well strike undetected in those areas.

The poultry industry is understandably anxious now that the danger is closer than ever. It has urged the government’s continued inspection of wild birds and domestic poultry and wants farm owners to be trained as the first line of defence in the event of an outbreak.

“Poultry farmers need to be better informed about how to protect themselves and their workers. At the moment, there is not enough information coming through to the people on the ground,” said D. D. Wanasinghe, chairman of the All Island Poultry Association. “If, for instance, they are taught how to take samples from birds at the first sign of infection, a lot of time could be saved,” he said, adding that farm workers had insufficient training in using protective gear while handling sick birds.

The government’s task force of animal and human health agencies is supported by United Nations organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization; the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF; the UN Development Programme, the WHO and the World Bank. Besides contributing funds to the programme, UN agencies have helped draft a communication strategy targeting stakeholders and guidelines for disaster management in the event of an avian flu epidemic.


See also:
PAKISTAN: Government plays down bird flu risk
AFGHANISTAN: Bird flu cases surge in new areas
ASIA: Bird flu ‘under control’, but increased alert for lunar New Year

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

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