H5N1 virus resurfaces in Pakistan

Jun 23, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – A livestock official in Pakistan today confirmed that the H5N1 avian influenza virus has struck again in the country's North-West Frontier province, killing thousands of chickens at a commercial farm.

Ibrahim Kahn, a livestock department chief in Swabi district, where the outbreak occurred, said confirmatory tests were performed at a government laboratory in Islamabad, according to a report today from Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Kahn told AFP that the farm's owner notified authorities on Jun 20 about the suspicious deaths of about 4,000 birds. After a laboratory confirmed the H5N1 virus in samples from the birds the next day, authorities sealed the farm and destroyed about 2,000 birds, he said.

Pakistan's health ministry examined workers on the farm, but none appear to be infected with the virus, Kahn told AFP.

Last December, H5N1 outbreaks in North-West Frontier province contributed to suspected human-to-human transmission of the virus.

A few days before the new outbreak, Pakistan had filed a final report with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) on outbreaks that occurred sporadically throughout 2007 and into early 2008. The country's last outbreak, which occurred in early March, also hit a commercial chicken farm in North-West Frontier province, near Abbottabad, according to a previous report from the OIE.

The report said wild birds were the probable source of the H5N1 virus in the previous 2007 and 2008 outbreaks.

Hong Kong farmers angry
Elsewhere, chicken farmers in Hong Kong threatened to release their chickens to protest what they see as an unfair compensation offer from government officials who, after recent H5N1 outbreaks in the city's live poultry markets, are exploring the possibility of phasing out live chicken trading, according to a Jun 20 AFP report.

The government has offered farmers and traders compensation totaling $163.9 million to give up their sales licenses, according to AFP. Chicken stall owners would receive between $600,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the size of the stall and product turnover, the report said.

York Chow, Hong Kong's health minister, said in a statement that the offer was "very reasonable," but a representative from the farmer's group that is threatening to release chickens said the government's offer was too low, according to AFP.

In early June, Hong Kong's government announced that animal health officials had found the H5N1 virus in five chicken-dropping samples from three poultry market stalls. The officials did not say if the testing was prompted by reports of sick or dead birds.

After the virus was found in chicken droppings at four more poultry markets, authorities on Jun 11 announced that all market poultry would be culled and that they were considering extending a 3-week ban on all live poultry from local farms and mainland China.

Less than a week later, authorities in Guangdong province, on Hong Kong's northern border, announced that the virus had struck a duck farm in Yashan Village.

FAO: Vietnam should keep vaccinating
In other avian influenza developments, experts from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently said Vietnam will probably need to continue vaccinating poultry for at least the next 3 to 5 years, according to a Jun 19 statement from the FAO. The experts made the statement in a  report on a recent avian flu conference that was held in Vietnam, sponsored by the country's agriculture ministry, the FAO, and two US government agencies.

Jeff Gilbert, the FAO's avian influenza team leader in Vietnam, said in the statement that given farmers' lack of knowledge about biosecurity, Vietnam is at risk for significant outbreaks, like those that occurred in 2004 and 2005, unless vaccination continues.

After those widespread outbreaks, which led to the destruction of 66 million birds, Vietnam in 2005 became the first country to institute mandatory poultry vaccination against the H5N1 virus. However, over the past year, the country has suffered recurring smaller outbreaks, often among unvaccinated birds.

Bui Ba Bong, Vietnam's deputy agriculture minister, said further study of H5N1 virus transmission should be combined with restructuring of the country's poultry sector to boost biosecurity and strengthen educational messages about the disease.

Andrew Speedy, an FAO representative in Vietnam, praised Vietnam's government for acknowledging avian influenza risks, maintaining transparency, and taking a scientific approach to battling the virus. He said the country should "reconsider" vaccination, calling it effective but costly.

Gilbert said that changing Vietnam's traditional farming systems to incorporate better biosecurity and surveillance measures will require a careful approach. "So there is a push and pull. They (the farmers) will be pushed by legislation, but they will be pulled by giving them access to markets," he said.

Anni McLeod, a senior official with the FAO's livestock division, told meeting participants that a recent study indicated that mass media messages about avian influenza are losing their effectiveness in Vietnam.

She suggested a more personal, interactive approach to communities. "For many people in Vietnam, avian influenza is a part of life, it's not unusual, so we have to think about more direct ways to communicate with people, ways that are more related to their lives," McLeod said in the statement.

See also:

OIE reports on Vietnamese outbreak

Jun 11 CIDRAP News story "Hong Kong finds more H5N1, culls all market poultry"

Jun 19 FAO statement

Oct 25, 2006, CIDRAP News story "Special report: Vietnam's success against avian flu may offer blueprint for others"

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