Africa May Face Serious Avian Flu Risk

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After the confirmed outbreaks of avian influenza in Romania and Turkey the risk of bird flu spreading to the Middle East and African countries has markedly increased, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations warned today.

"The detection of bird flu in Romania and Turkey, following outbreaks in Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, confirms FAO's recent warning that the virus is spreading along the pathways of migratory birds outside southeast Asia," said Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer. "Wild birds seem to be one of the main avian influenza carriers, but more research is urgently needed to fully understand their role in spreading the virus."

Both Romania and Turkey have swiftly responded to the recent outbreaks, FAO said. "These countries should be able to contain the virus soon. One of our major concerns is now the potential spread of avian influenza through migratory birds to northern and eastern Africa," Domenech warned. "There is serious risk that this scenario may become a reality."

"The Middle East and northern African countries should be able to build up a line of defense against avian influenza. FAO is more concerned about the situation in Eastern Africa, where veterinary services, due to various constraints, should have more difficulties to run efficient bird flu campaigns based on slaughtering infected animals and vaccination," Domenech said. "The countries concerned and the international community have to make every effort to ensure that bird flu does not become endemic in Africa."

"If the virus were to become endemic in eastern Africa, it could increase the risk of the virus to evolve through mutation or re-assortment into a strain that could be transmitted to and between humans," Domenech said. "The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities in eastern African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus. The countries urgently need international assistance to build up basic surveillance and control systems."

FAO will assist countries in Africa to strengthen the surveillance on wild and domestic birds and improve laboratory capacities in order to early detect any bird flu outbreak.

The bird flu risk to European countries due to wild birds is relatively low at present, according to FAO. However, there is a significant risk that migratory birds could carry the disease to western and northern Europe next spring if wild bird populations are infected during their stay in southern regions. Veterinary services in Europe are very efficient and strong surveillance and disease control measures are in place to face this risk.

"It is crucial to remind that the epicenter of the disease currently remains in southeast Asia where the virus continues to circulate in several countries and where a pandemic could finally start if the control of the disease in animals is not successful," Domenech said.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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