WHO Puts World on Watch for Bird Flu af­ter Out­breaks in Sev­eral Coun­tries

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World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) is on high alert and has called on all coun­tries to closely mon­i­tor out­breaks of deadly avian flu in birds and to promptly re­port any hu­man cases that could sig­nal the start of a pan­demic.

Sev­eral dif­fer­ent strains of bird flu have been spread­ing across Europe and Asia since late last year, re­sult­ing in large-scale slaugh­ter of poul­try in af­fected coun­tries and some hu­man deaths in China.

Ac­cord­ing to the WHO, nearly 40 coun­tries have re­ported new out­breaks of the highly path­o­genic avian in­fluenza in poul­try or wild birds since Novem­ber.

“The rapidly ex­pand­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion of these out­breaks and the num­ber of virus strains cur­rently co-cir­cu­lat­ing have put WHO on high alert,” said di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the UN health agency Dr Mar­garet Chan at the start of the agency’s 10-day ex­ec­u­tive meet­ing in Geneva.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Chan, the new H5N6 strain caus­ing se­vere out­breaks in Asia was cre­ated by gene-swap­ping among four dif­fer­ent viruses.

While the world is bet­ter pre­pared for the next in­fluenza pan­demic fol­low­ing the H1N1 pan­demic that cir­cled the world in 2009-2010, it is “not at all well (pre­pared) enough,” she said.

Chan noted that there has been a “sud­den and steep in­crease” in hu­man cases of H7N9 since De­cem­ber in China, and the WHO has not been able to rule out lim­ited hu­man-to-hu­man spread in two clus­ters of hu­man cases al­though no sus­tained spread has been de­tected thus far.

China’s del­e­ga­tion, led by Zhang Yang of the Na­tional Health and Fam­ily Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, told the Geneva meet­ing that China would carry out its obli­ga­tions on com­mu­ni­cat­ing and re­spond­ing to any out­breaks.

“Cur­rently H7N9 over­all statis­tics re­mains the same,” Zhang said. “China will con­tinue to strengthen its co­op­er­a­tion and ex­change with WHO in this re­gard.”

Un­der the In­ter­na­tional Health Reg­u­la­tions, a bind­ing le­gal in­stru­ment, WHO’s 194 mem­ber states are re­quired to de­tect and re­port hu­man cases promptly, Chan said, adding: “We can­not af­ford to miss the early sig­nals.”

Bird flu, also known as avian in­fluenza, was first noted by ve­teri­nary sci­en­tists in the early-1900s. It is an in­fec­tious disease of birds caused by a vari­ant of the stan­dard in­fluenza A virus.

Since mid- De­cem­ber 2003, a grow­ing num­ber of coun­tries, start­ing in south­east Asia, have re­ported out­breaks of bird flu in chick­ens and ducks. The virus can spread rapidly through flocks of do­mes­tic poul­try, and in­fec­tions in sev­eral species of wild birds and in pigs have also been re­ported.

Hu­mans can catch bird flu di­rectly through close con­tact with live in­fected birds and those who work with in­fected chick­ens are most at risk. The virus is ex­creted, and peo­ple may in­hale these germs as dust when the drop­pings dry out.

In hu­mans, symp­toms in­clude fever, sore throats and cough­ing. Peo­ple can also de­velop con­junc­tivi­tis. It takes three to five days af­ter ex­po­sure to de­velop symp­toms.

Birds may die with­out show­ing any symp­toms but typ­i­cally birds sud­denly show swelling about the eyes and ear lobes.

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