No bird flu pandemic despite recent deaths - health officials

Four humans have died of bird flu in Egypt in the past week but health officials deny the country is gripped by an influenza pandemic.

“There is still no fear that the virus has transformed into an influenza pandemic,” John Jabbour, a medical consultant for emerging diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for the Eastern Mediterranean, told IRIN.

Sixteen other suspected cases were admitted to hospital on 2 January, according to Amany Nakhla, the regional planning assistant for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) regional office, in Cairo.

According to media reports, the H5N1 strain has been detected among poultry in the Nile Delta, especially those reared in homesteads.

All four deaths in the past week were of women from the Nile Delta region and they brought to 19 the number of people who have died of the H5N1 strain of avian flu since avian flu was first detected in Egypt in 2006. Three of the four women were infected by domestic birds in their homes. The fourth was a poultry seller.

The WHO has said some of those who died having contracted the H5N1 virus strain showed moderate resistance to Tamiflu, the antiviral drug.

Before their deaths the last reported case of a human death from bird flu was in June 2007. “Avian flu is a behavioural disease and as a long time has passed since it [last] appeared in the country, people went back to their previous habits of raising poultry inside their homes because it is the only source of income for many of them,” Jabbour said.

Precautionary measures

Egypt has taken extensive precautionary measures against bird flu since it appeared in the country in 2006. “We formed a higher committee to combat bird flu which convenes every month... The committee includes representatives from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, the different provinces and security forces,” Abdel Ghaffar Abdel Nasser, head of the disease surveillance unit at the Ministry of Health, told IRIN.

“We reached an advanced stage in our global pandemic plan on the national level, too, and we are working now at the provincial and hospital level. This plan focuses on defining the responsibilities of each party in case the disease becomes a global pandemic,” Adel Nasser noted.

“The awareness campaigns we conducted were very fruitful. For example, all the cases among children reported last year were cured. Mothers immediately took their children to hospital once they suspected that they [the children] had some bird flu symptoms,” he said.

“What we noticed recently is that people are becoming lazy in reporting the death of their poultry or the appearance of symptoms… Many of those who go to hospital after the appearance of bird flu symptoms still lie to doctors when asked if they raise poultry at home,” he said.

Transportation of birds

The government has said that the large number of people who keep poultry at home makes it difficult to eradicate the disease. Because of this the government declared an emergency in the Delta region in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. It has also warned that it will take strong measures against farms that do not follow the rules for raising poultry.

The government also banned the transport of birds from one province to another without permission. “Before moving the birds, dealers should inform the veterinary medicine unit which in turn will take some samples of the birds and send them to the laboratory for testing. Permission is issued if the results are negative,” said Saber Abdel Aziz, head of the general directorate of poultry epidemics and diseases at the Ministry of Agriculture.

The vehicles that transport live poultry are stopped for inspection at different checkpoints throughout the country. “There are at least 100 checkpoints in every province and security forces and veterinary specialists are available in three shifts,” he added.

Abdel Aziz said the ministry had increased its budget for vaccinations this year. “We are planning to give 200 million vaccination doses this year compared to 150 million last year.”

In the second phase of its vaccination campaign, which stared on 15 December and which will end on 15 March, the ministry aims to vaccinate 85 million domestic birds.

“The vaccines are free of charge for domestically-bred birds,” Abdul Aziz said. The first phase of the campaign, which started in June and ended in December 2007, targeted 76 million birds in all.