Clar­ion call to avert po­ten­tial dis­as­ter

Avian flu is af­fect­ing Africa and a con­certed re­gional ap­proach is needed to man­age it, write Chim­imba David Phiri and Moetapele Letshwenyo

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

THE FIRST con­fir­ma­tion of out­breaks of the highly path­o­genic avian in­fluenza (HPAI) in south­ern Africa (re­ported in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, Zim­babwe and South Africa, in that or­der), has far-reach­ing an­i­mal health, food and nutri­tional se­cu­rity and so­cio-eco­nomic im­pacts in the sub­re­gion.

The po­ten­tial losses due to the dev­as­tat­ing na­ture of the dis­ease and its neg­a­tive im­pact on trade in poul­try are a fur­ther blow in a re­gion strug­gling to re­cu­per­ate from the ef­fects of con­sec­u­tive droughts and other emerg­ing high-im­pact, trans­bound­ary crop pests and an­i­mal dis­eases, such as the fall army­worm and foot and mouth dis­ease.

Poul­try is rel­a­tively cheap, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble and a high-qual­ity source of pro­tein. Poul­try pro­duc­tion presents liveli­hoods op­por­tu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­larly for ru­ral women and youth.

The out­breaks are ex­pected to chal­lenge the pre­pared­ness and re­sponse ca­pac­i­ties of coun­tries and to trig­ger a re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the struc­ture of poul­try pro­duc­tion, poli­cies, reg­u­la­tions and trade at na­tional and re­gional level.

The man­ner and ef­fec­tive­ness with which the out­break is man­aged will de­ter­mine the sever­ity of the losses to the sub­re­gion. As such, the time to act is now.

The clar­ion call is for all coun­tries in the sub­re­gion, those in­fected and those that are at risk of in­fec­tion, to move swiftly and in co-or­di­nated man­ner to con­trol the dis­ease.

Fail­ing to do so could see the re­gion re­laps­ing into fur­ther food and in­come in­se­cu­rity, and los­ing the gains made in re­cent years.

The out­break of avian flu was pre­dictable after some coun­tries in north, west and east Africa con­firmed its pres­ence ear­lier this year, as well as the global in­crease in cases of the dis­ease.

In an emer­gency re­gional con­fer­ence on emerg­ing trans­bound­ary an­i­mal and crop pests and dis­eases, con­vened by the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion, the South­ern African Development Com­mu­nity (SADC) and World Or­gan­i­sa­tion for An­i­mal Health (OIE) in Fe­bru­ary, ex­perts and del­e­gates were warned about the like­li­hood.

The meet­ing was alerted to a sce­nario of mi­gra­tory birds, the most likely car­rier of the virus, fol­low­ing their usual mi­gra­tory paths through south­ern Africa and ex­pos­ing do­mes­tic poul­try to the dis­ease.

While the rec­om­men­da­tions made dur­ing the meet­ing could not be a panacea to the out­break, it served as a re­minder of the risk and re­mains the most com­pelling start­ing point for the re­gion to re­spond to the out­break.

Re­spond­ing to the avian flu out­break re­quires na­tional au­thor­i­ties to be bet­ter pre­pared, and en­tails strength­en­ing the ex­ist­ing in­for­ma­tion and sur­veil­lance sys­tems. The re­gion can bor­row heav­ily from good in­ter­na­tional prac­tices that have suc­cess­fully con­tained bird flu.

One way of do­ing this is to strengthen HPAI sur­veil­lance in do­mes­tic poul­try and wild bird pop­u­la­tions. This could be achieved by fur­ther ca­pac­i­tat­ing na­tional struc­tures, based on con­tin­gency plans that were de­vel­oped many years ago in re­sponse to the pan­demic and are mod­elled on re­sponse plans that have been ef­fec­tive in mon­i­tor­ing and con­tain­ing trans­bound­ary pests and dis­eases.

Fur­ther­more, it is also im­por­tant for all coun­tries in the sub­re­gion to have early-warn­ing or alert sys­tems that are func­tional. The sys­tems en­able pol­icy mak­ers to take quick ac­tion and to trig­ger timely and ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses, based on ac­cu­rate and timely in­for­ma­tion.

HPAI’s re­cent emer­gence as well as that of the fall army­worm late last year through to this year, have re­vealed that most coun­tries did not have up­dated con­tin­gency plans.

The peren­nial emer­gence of new pests and dis­eases is an­other strong call for up­dat­ing con­tin­gency plans at na­tional and re­gional level.

It is also im­por­tant to re­view le­gal frame­works, strengthen re­gional co-or­di­na­tion and in-coun­try col­lab­o­ra­tion among sec­tors, and to en­sure that na­tional con­tin­gency plans are har­monised and aligned to the SADC’s HPAI con­trol strat­egy.

The dis­ease does not se­lect; it hits ev­ery­thing in its way.

Avian flu is a virus that af­fects birds, lead­ing to ill­ness and death in do­mes­ti­cated birds and wild birds.

When an out­break oc­curs, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to con­tain as it spreads rapidly through poul­try flocks. Avian flu can spread through di­rect con­tact be­tween sus­cep­ti­ble and in­fected birds, or con­tact with their se­cre­tions and ex­cre­tions such as res­pi­ra­tory dis­charges or fae­ces. The dis­ease can also spread through con­tam­i­nated feed, equip­ment, cloth­ing and footwear.

It at­tacks free-range fam­ily poul­try and in­ten­sively reared birds on largescale com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion sites with the same lethal re­sults. As such, its emer­gence for the first time in the re­gion should jerk all stake­hold­ers into col­lec­tive ac­tion, as it also knows no na­tional bor­ders.

Com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers are par­tic­u­larly af­fected as they bear the brunt of any eco­nomic losses.

How­ever, the im­pact is far-reach­ing as the com­mer­cial poul­try in­dus­try pro­vides em­ploy­ment and sup­plies day-old chicks to small­holder poul­try-keep­ers, most ta­ble eggs and poul­try meat. As such, any shock to the in­dus­try would have far-reach­ing con­se­quences in­clud­ing job losses, short­ages of poul­try food prod­ucts in the mar­kets and food-price in­creases.

The like­li­hood of new out­breaks in the re­gion re­mains high.

How­ever, pro­duc­ers can pro­tect sus­cep­ti­ble poul­try flocks by strength­en­ing biose­cu­rity mea­sures. Na­tional au­thor­i­ties need to strengthen pre­pared­ness and re­sponse ca­pac­i­ties, con­trols and mea­sures put in place to mon­i­tor dis­ease in poul­try flocks and in wild bird pop­u­la­tions, and to en­sure com­pli­ance with im­port and ex­port con­trols.

Ev­ery­one, and that in­cludes con­sumers, should be aware of the po­ten­tial of the avian flu virus to cause dis­ease and death in do­mes­tic poul­try.

Ev­ery­one should know how it is trans­mit­ted. Some strains have the po­ten­tial to be­come in­fec­tious to hu­mans al­though the H5N8 virus cur­rently re­ported in south­ern Africa has not been known to af­fect hu­man health. It is of para­mount im­por­tance to al­ways ad­here to the ad­vice, in­struc­tions and pre­cau­tions is­sued by the com­pe­tent au­thor­i­ties. Phiri is the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion sub­re­gional co-or­di­na­tor for South­ern Africa. Letshwenyo is a World Or­gan­i­sa­tion for An­i­mal Health sub­re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tive for south­ern Africa

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