FAO to help Indonesia fight avian flu

Oct 25, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said yesterday it would set up a team to "kick start" avian influenza control efforts in Indonesia, which has been criticized for its response to the disease.

"The bird flu virus is threatening to become endemic in several parts of the country," and a "strong, coordinated response" is needed, said Joseph Domenech, the FAO's chief veterinary officer.

Indonesia has reported avian flu outbreaks in poultry since February 2004, and the country has had at least seven confirmed human cases, including four deaths, since July of this year. The government has promised several times to respond with mass poultry culls and quarantines, but has actually done little, by most accounts.

Lack of awareness cited
Domenech said the FAO is concerned that the virus is present in millions of backyard poultry flocks. "There still seems to be a lack of awareness in the rural and suburban communities about the threat the virus poses to humans and animals," he added. "Big poultry producers have generally managed to protect themselves, because they have the knowledge and means to mount effective biosecurity and virus control."

The FAO said it would set up a task force of experts from Indonesian veterinary and health agencies, the World Health Organization, and the World Food Programme to lead an effort to attack the disease in the field.

"Our basic objective is to kick-start virus control activities in the field," said Peter Roeder, an FAO animal health officer who will head the team. "FAO will therefore establish local disease control centres in hot-spot areas. These centres will offer up-dated information and will train animal health technicians and veterinarians in how to carry out rapid disease search and control."

Based on an approach used in Thailand, plans call for workers to go from house to house to identify areas affected by avian flu and to decide, with Indonesian officials, on control measures such as slaughtering, vaccination, and biosecurity, the FAO said.

"This military-like approach against avian influenza has proved very successful in Thailand," Roeder said. "FAO will bring in a team of experienced Thai veterinarians to share their experience with Indonesian animal health experts and to train hundreds of animal health technicians. We believe that Indonesia can learn a lot from the Thai experience."

The project will be funded by $1.5 million from the US Agency for International Development, officials said.

The FAO promised to explore the possibility of compensating farmers for their loss when chickens are culled.

Containment in poultry underfunded
The FAO announcement yesterday came as health officials at an international meeting in Ottawa said the need to control avian flu at the source—in poultry—is being neglected amid global worries that the disease will lead to a human flu pandemic.

"Our first line of defense should be attacking the problem at the poultry level," said Alejandro Thiermann, advisor to the director-general of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), as quoted by the Associated Press.

Thiermann added, "It is our opinion that the international community has drastically underinvested in the veterinary infrastructure required to support this vitally important program."

FAO Director-General Jacque Diouf said many people seem more concerned about a possible human pandemic than about containing the disease in poultry, according to a Reuters report.

He said the FAO and the OIE had developed a $175 million strategy for controlling avian flu in birds, but so far donor countries have pledged only $30 million for the effort and have not actually paid a cent, according to the story.

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