Sep 14, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – Avian influenza and other diseases that originated in animals show that the World Health Organization (WHO) needs to pay more attention to animal health, the WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific said at an international conference yesterday.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, discussing the response to avian flu, said, "Animal health has not traditionally been seen as part of WHO's mandate. We can no longer afford to take that view. Both avian influenza and SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] originated in animals, as did other recent emerging pathogens, such as the Nipah virus in Malaysia in 1999. We can be virtually certain that more zoonotic diseases will continue to emerge."
Omi's comments were in a report he presented to the WHO's Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, which is holding its annual meeting this week in Shanghai.
Omi said the WHO Western Pacific Region staff is working on a joint strategy with the agency's Southeast Asia Region "to combat outbreak-prone diseases, in full consultation with WHO Headquarters. This document will include a significant component on the production and marketing of animals for food."
He also said the WHO's Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions need to increase collaboration to combat disease threats. "Improved collaboration between our two regions will have global implications," he stated. "Many of the emerging global threats to health begin in Asia—if we can nip them in the bud here, the whole world will benefit."
Omi added that he has begun an "extensive dialogue" with the Southeast Asia regional director on how to strengthen the two regions' joint efforts.
In other comments, Omi urged countries to strengthen their preparedness for the possible re-emergence of SARS and H5N1 avian flu. "Many countries still do not have national pandemic preparedness plans essential to minimize the impact of the next pandemic," he said, as quoted in a WHO news release.
The WHO statement said that despite Asia's experience with avian flu, which has killed at least 28 people and forced the destruction of millions of poultry this year, "most countries lack comprehensive programmes to prevent animal-to-human transmission of zoonotic diseases."
In other developments, three new poultry outbreaks of avian flu were detected in northeastern Malaysia, one of them outside the existing 20-kilometer-wide quarantine zone, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported today. All three outbreaks were in Kelantan state.
Malaysia's first outbreak of H5N1 avian flu was detected in mid-August, in fighting cocks thought to have been smuggled from Thailand. Before today, outbreaks had been reported in at least five locations in the quarantine zone.
The AFP report said five birds at the new outbreak site outside the quarantine zone showed signs of disease. A veterinary official said 579 birds have already been culled at the other two new outbreak sites, which are villages inside the quarantine zone, according to the report.
AFP also reported that a 26-year-old man and an 8-year-old girl from one of the villages were hospitalized for observation because of symptoms that included cough and flu-like symptoms. Ramlee Rahmat, a Health Ministry official, was quoted as saying both patients had had contact with dying chickens.
Also today, a report by the Thai newspaper The Nation said seven suspected human cases of avian flu in Thailand were ruled out on the basis of laboratory tests. Test results were still being awaited in three other suspected cases, the newspaper said.
Dr. Shigeru Omi's report to the WHO regional meeting in Shanghai