FAO praises India's H5N1 response, urges vigilance

Feb 28, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – India scored a commendable success in stamping out its worst-ever H5N1 avian influenza outbreak, which occurred over the past 2 months in West Bengal state, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said yesterday, but it warned that outbreaks will recur unless the country stays on guard.

Mohinder Oberoi, an FAO veterinary expert, recently traveled to the affected areas in West Bengal to observe how state and local officials responded to the outbreaks, according to an FAO statement. "Intensive culling in the predominantly backyard poultry sector appears to have stopped the disease in its tracks," he said.

The poultry outbreaks in West Bengal were first reported in mid January in the village of Margram. The virus spread quickly to other villages, striking in 13 of the state's 19 districts.  However, no outbreaks were reported in Calcutta, West Bengal's capital. Oberoi said no new outbreaks have been detected in West Bengal since Feb 2.

No human infections were reported, though some individuals—including some veterinary workers—were placed in isolation because of suspicious symptoms.

Bangladesh, which borders West Bengal, has also been battling extensive H5N1 outbreaks that have affected 45 of the country's 64 districts.

Key factors that helped curb the West Bengal outbreaks included political and financial commitments from the federal and state governments, public awareness campaigns, a strong chain of command between districts and villages, compensation payments, and collaboration between animal and human health departments, Oberoi said.

Joseph Domenech, the FAO's chief veterinary officer, warned in the statement that the possibility of new outbreaks is high and urged India to maintain intensive surveillance.

"The virus could still be present in the environment, despite heavy slaughtering and extensive disinfection of affected areas, or it could be reintroduced from other countries," he said.

More than 3.9 million chickens and ducks were culled to prevent the spread of the virus, a burden that fell heaviest on mainly poor backyard farmers, the FAO said. It said the socioeconomic impact of the culling should be urgently assessed to help guide efforts to mitigate the negative impact on poor farmers.

The FAO said rural communities would benefit from public education campaigns that teach them about safe poultry production practices and basic biosecurity measures.

The outbreaks in India and Bangladesh show that close collaboration is needed among countries in the region, according to the FAO. The agency said it and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have invited the two countries plus Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar to a regional meeting to be hosted by Nepal in Kathmandu.

In other developments, officials in China today vowed to strengthen the country's association with the OIE, according to Xinhua, China's state news agency. Hui Liangyu, China's vice premier, met with OIE Director Bernard Vallat, who was visiting Beijing at the invitation of China's agriculture ministry.

"I hope the two sides will further strengthen exchanges and cooperation, to jointly face major animal diseases like bird flu, and promote world animal health and public health safety," Hui told Vallat, according to Xinhua.

Vallat said China plays a key role in preventing and controlling global and regional outbreaks of animal diseases, Xinhua reported.

Elsewhere, veterinary officials in Vietnam said on Feb 26 that the H5N1 virus struck birds in Vinh Long province in the Mekong Delta in the southern part of the country, Thanh Nien News, a Vietnamese news service, reported yesterday.

The country's animal health department said the new outbreak pushes the number of Vietnamese provinces recently affected by the H5N1 virus to eight, according to Thanh Nien. Most of the affected provinces are in the north.

See also:

Feb 27 FAO statement

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