Experts weigh in on role of Indonesia, cats in avian flu

Apr 14, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – As many countries continue to battle H5N1 avian influenza, global animal-health officials are offering bad news and good news about the role of two players in the situation: Indonesia and cats.

The director of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), Dr. Bernard Vallat, called Indonesia an avian flu "time bomb" because of what he considered its weak response to poultry outbreaks, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report today.

"Indonesia is a time bomb for the region," Vallat told AFP. Calling the situation there a cause for "great concern," he said, "It is important for the Indonesian government to take the political decision" to step up its control efforts.

Vallat called on international creditors to "intervene massively" to help stop the virus's spread in Indonesia. In addition to many poultry outbreaks of H5N1, the country has had 31 human cases with 23 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

FAO, OIE downplay role of cats
On the positive side, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the OIE yesterday rejected a suggestion from European researchers that cats may play a significant role in spreading the H5N1 virus. Felines ranging from house cats to captive tigers have been infected on a number of occasions.

"From the data that have accumulated since the start of the current avian influenza crisis (end of 2003), cats do not appear to play any discernible role in the transmission of the virus in the natural setting," the organizations said in a joint statement. They said the species that spread the virus "are essentially domestic and wild birds."

The European experts, writing last week in Nature, had asserted that cats could be "more than a dead-end host" for the H5N1 virus, possibly giving it a chance to improve its ability to spread among mammals. They recommended that cats be protected from exposure and that potentially exposed cats be tested.

But the FAO and OIE said they agreed with an earlier WHO conclusion that "there is no present evidence that domestic cats can play a role in the transmission cycle of H5N1 viruses."

Still, cats should be kept away from infected birds, the groups said. "In view of the susceptibility of certain individuals of this species, it is recommended that cats in infected zones and surveillance zones set up around avian influenza outbreaks be kept indoors," they stated.

The FAO and OIE also said that among wild birds involved in spreading H5N1, evidence indicates that aquatic birds "play a major role." About 50 species of wild birds have proved susceptible to the virus, the groups said.

Other developments
In other avian flu developments, Egypt reported yesterday that an 18-year-old woman had died of H5N1 illness, while new poultry outbreaks were reported in Afghanistan and a poultry outbreak was suspected in Ivory Coast.

The 18-year-old woman was the 12th Egyptian to contract the disease and the fourth to die, according to an AFP report yesterday. She lived in the Menufiya governorate north of Cairo and had fallen ill after handling infected poultry, the story said.

The WHO noted her case yesterday, saying she was in stable condition at that point. She became ill Apr 5 and was hospitalized Apr 11, the agency said. Samples from her tested positive in Egypt's Central Public Health Laboratory and the US Naval Medical Research Unit 3 in Cairo.

Of Egypt's 12 human cases, four patients have died, five have recovered, and three were still being treated, AFP reported. The WHO's current case count, last updated Apr 12, shows 194 cases with 109 deaths, but it lists only 4 cases in Egypt.

In Afghanistan, H5N1 was found in birds in the central province of Logar, the third province affected, according to an AFP report published yesterday. Citing the FAO as its source, the report said tests in Italy confirmed the virus's presence.

The story didn't say how many birds or which species were infected. It said outbreaks were also suspected in two other provinces, Parwan and Herat. The virus was reported previously in Kabul and in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The suspected outbreak in Ivory Coast was in the Bondoukou region, according to the deputy regional governor, Jean-Paul Kablan, quoted yesterday by AFP. The outbreak would be the first in Ivory Coast if confirmed. Other African countries with known outbreaks so far are Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Kablan said about 100 chickens had died, as did four dogs that ate their carcasses, causing "panic" in the area, east of Abidjan, the capital, AFP reported.

See also:

FAO-OIE statement on role of cats and other species in H5N1 transmission

Apr 5, 2006, CIDRAP News story "Experts urge including cats in avian flu precautions"

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