The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is calling for $ 20 million to prevent the spread of avian flu across West Africa.
A statement issued by the FAO on Monday and copied to the Ghana News Agency said “fears are growing that without timely intervention to stem outbreaks of the highly virulent avian flu virus H5N1 across West Africa, further spread across the region and beyond is inevitable”.
The call followed outbreaks of the virus in poultry farms, markets and family holdings in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire.
The statement said the outbreaks came as countries across West Africa were still recovering from, and in some cases still battling, Ebola.
It cautioned that avian flu could trigger a mass die-off of chicken – a nutritious and inexpensive source of food for many people– with detrimental impacts on diets and on the economy of the region, exacerbating an already difficult situation.
It said previous strains of the virus – known to be highly virulent to poultry and capable of causing illness and fatalities in humans – have been circulating in Asia since the early 2000s and in Egypt for almost 10 years.
It noted that the H5N1 strain had caused the death of tens of millions of poultry and losses of tens of billions of dollars.
The statement said while the first incursion of the H5N1 in West Africa occurred in 2006, it was eliminated by 2008.
It said in late 2014, however, the virus was re-introduced in Nigeria, where it spread rapidly in the following three months – to date more than 1.6 million birds have been culled or have died from the virus.
“Because the disease can be transmitted to humans and is considered highly lethal, FAO is working closely with the World Health Organization on country assessments, contingency plans, offering technical assistance and investigating potential flu cases and the source of infection,” it said.
It said FAO assessment missions to Benin, Cameroon, Mali and Togo – undertaken in collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health, the African Union, and in some cases with the World Bank – had not identified cases of H5N1 in poultry, but these countries and other countries in the Sub-Region need to ensure that prevention and preparedness measures were in place.
“Based on what we do know, there is a real risk of further virus spread. Urgent action is needed to strengthen veterinary investigation and reporting systems in the region and tackle the disease at the root, before there is a spillover to humans,” said Juan Lubroth, Chief of FAO’s Animal Health Service Division.
The statement +observed that the FAO’s appeal for $ 20 million for prevention and response foresees bolstering weak veterinary systems, improving the capabilities of local laboratories and putting FAO specialists on the ground in affected and at-risk countries.
It said in the countries that had experienced outbreaks, response interventions include destruction of infected and exposed poultry, disinfection of premises and markets and the safe disposal of dead birds.
It pointed out that veterinary officers, meanwhile, were encouraged to use basic techniques like “trace-forward” – which looked at where infected animals had been sold or moved to – and “trace backward” – examining where infected animals were purchased or where they came from – to find sources with the ultimate goal of halting continuous virus introduction or further spread.
It said although quality vaccines were available, the vaccination strategy to be implemented poses certain challenges in some countries and there was always a risk of creating a false sense of security by assuming that the administration of a dose of vaccine will resolve all threats.
Instead, behavioral changes – including enhanced hygiene routines, good poultry production, and safe transportation practices of healthy animals – ought to be at the heart of prevention plans, according to FAO.