UN health agency urges steps to prevent bird flu causing human pandemic

“While these outbreaks thus far remain restricted to poultry populations, they nevertheless increase the chances of virus transmission and human infection of the disease,” the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) said of the new cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 reported in China, Thailand and Viet Nam. The same virus killed 22 people in Thailand and Viet Nam earlier this year when more than 100 million birds died or were culled in at least nine countries across Southern and Eastern Asia. WHO re-emphasized the need to protect individuals involved in culling infected poultry by giving them proper equipment, including protective clothing, masks and goggles, since there is a high risk of exposure during the slaughtering process. It also recommended that all those involved in mass cullings, transportation and burial or inclination of carcasses should be vaccinated with the WHO-recommended influenza vaccine to avoid the co-infection of avian and human influenza, which could lead to the emergence of a pandemic influenza virus. Other recommendations include close monitoring of all those exposed to infected poultry or to farms under suspicion, and antiviral treatment for suspected human cases. If antivirals are available in sufficient quantities, prophylactic use should be considered. Meanwhile the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) urged against culling wild birds in the present outbreak. “Killing wild birds will not help to prevent or control avian influenza outbreaks,” Juan Lubroth of the FAO Animal Health Service said. “Wild birds are an important element of the ecosystem and should not be destroyed.” Although certain species of water fowl can be a reservoir of bird flu viruses, “to date, there is no scientific evidence that wildlife is the major factor in the resurgence of the disease in the region,” he added. The major factors contributing to the spread of the virus are poor hygienic practices related to the production, processing and marketing of poultry, contaminated products, gaps in biosecurity and individuals not following recommended control measures, FAO said.