Avian flu outbreak abating, says government

Egypt’s Supreme Committee to Combat Bird Flu - a government body - said on 19 January that infection rates among poultry in farms and homes had dropped sharply since the second week of January.

[Read this report in Arabic]

It said this was largely due to a public awareness campaign and the intensification of vaccination initiatives.

Last week, Cabinet spokesman Magdi Radi said 60 percent of poultry reared domestically had been vaccinated and that the government was stepping up efforts, especially in rural areas, to complete vaccination of the remaining 40 percent of poultry.

Radi also said epidemiological surveillance had been completed in the governorates of Dahaklia, Behera, Giza, Fayyoum and Gharbiyah.

At the same time, Nasr El-Sayed, an adviser at the Ministry of Health, said that since the beginning of January 2008 fewer suspected human cases of bird flu had been admitted to hospitals.

However, Amany Nakhla, regional planning assistant for avian flu in the Cairo office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), warned against a slackening in the awareness phase. She said 15 new suspected human cases of bird flu from the Delta area had been under medical surveillance since 16 January.

Photo: Martina Fuchs/IRIN
A bird flu awareness poster reading: "Don't touch or get close to dead birds in order not to be infected. Be responsible and join us in the fight against bird flu."

Intensified media campaign

In stepping up its public awareness campaign on bird flu, the government is cooperating with the World Health Organization (WHO). Zuhair Hallaj, the WHO country representative, said that although the media campaign had been slow in the last year positive steps had been taken in the past few days to improve the communication strategy. "Efforts now focus on convincing people not to handle live birds and to go to hospital early [when suspecting bird flu infection] to decrease the probability of future fatalities", he said.

Abdel Nasser, head of the disease surveillance unit at the Ministry of Health, said he was satisfied the current campaign was working well and that the government had been successful in responding to the current bird flu outbreak in Egypt.

However, the high population density, popular dependence on poultry for income generation and as a source of nutrition, limited slaughter-house capacity, as well as the large number of households keeping poultry in their backyards meant there were many challenges to the successful control of the virus.

Nasser said, for example, that it was difficult to convince people to have their poultry vaccinated. "Many people still refuse the inoculation and culling of birds so we need a lot of human resources and teams to move from house to house to look for the [domestically reared] birds," he said.

According to current government measures all farms proven infected with the bird flu virus are shut down for a period of six months and all birds and farm wastes on the farms are destroyed. The government further prohibits moving poultry from one governorate to another or from one farm to another without permission. Farm owners who do not abide by these regulations face a penalty.

Photo: Martina Fuchs/IRIN
Chicken remains hugely popular in Egypt as a source of nutrition

Ibrahim Kerdany, WHO spokesman for the Eastern Mediterranean region, said the media campaigns were channelled through traditional media outlets (newspapers, TV and radio) in the affected and high-risk governorates, and especially through media centres affiliated to Egypt's State Information Service (SIS).

So far, according to SIS, the government has issued about 250,000 bulletins about bird flu and how one can protect oneself against it. In addition, half a million fact sheets have been distributed to students to raise awareness about the bird-flu issue, the reasons of infection and possible ways of protection.

According to Kerdany, a similar media campaign has also been launched in Saudi Arabia.

Since the H5N1 virus was first detected in humans in Egypt in February 2006, 43 people have been infected with the virus throughout the country and 19 of them have died.