Climate change and globalisation could promote the spread of avian influenza and create a global pandemic, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Speaking at the international ministerial conference on avian and pandemic influenza in New Delhi, the director general of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, warned there could be a potential health crisis.
“The spread of avian influenza typifies the potential emergence of major health crises with an increased risk of pathogens travelling over large distances in very short time periods, favoured by globalisation and climate change,” he said.
With avian influenza prevention and control programmes being in place for almost four-years, the FAO said many countries have been able to contain or even eradicate the disease.
The World Health Organisation says there have been 335 cases of bird flu including 206 deaths, with the highest number of cases reported in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Almost all countries have implemented emergency programmes and have reinforced their health and veterinary services.
Despite the immense efforts undertaken by countries and the international community to prevent and control the H5N1 or bird flu virus, the FAO said many countries are still facing major challenges.
“The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus continues to circulate in some regions of the world, causing the introduction or reintroduction of the disease in other countries,” Diouf said. “Extensive outbreak areas remain, particularly in countries where the virus is endemic, with the attendant risk of the emergence of a pandemic virus.
“There are real risks of viruses emerging against which current vaccines provide no protection. Another major problem is the cost of long-term control programmes and how to finance them. Finally, there is still the difficulty of controlling the illegal movement of products and live animals.”
Robust animal health systems directed by well-equipped veterinary services and supported by a clear political commitment are the key elements for successful avian influenza control campaigns, the FAO director-General stressed. Diouf warned that the international community would also have to prepare for other major health crises coming from the animal kingdom. “The acceleration of international trade will continue, as will climate change, and their impact on ecosystems is already causing the spread of vector-borne diseases into hitherto untouched regions,” he said.
“Rift Valley Fever, Bluetongue virus and West Nile Fever are instances of this for insect-borne diseases. But the spread of other episootic diseases such as foot-and-mouth and African swine fever are, like avian influenza, other examples that are linked to the intensification of production systems and to the increase in commercial movements, whether controlled or not.”
A total of 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa have been affected by bird flu and 26 countries have experienced outbreaks in 2007. Except for a few outbreaks in wild birds, most of the confirmed outbreaks have been in domestic poultry, including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and quails.