Avian flu contingency plan approved

Ethiopia's national avian flu coordination committee has approved a multi-million dollar contingency plan to strengthen preparedness in the event of the disease spreading to the Horn of Africa country.

The three-year plan, costing almost US $124 million, was prepared by the Avian Human Influenza National Coordination Committee. It includes the creation of surveillance systems, stockpiling of essential medical supplies and equipment, as well as systems for building national, regional and local response capacity. It also aims to boost public awareness of the disease, and strengthen laboratory diagnostic services.

The coordination committee comprises officials from various government ministries, United Nations agencies and aid donors. Seventy percent of the estimated cost of the plan would go to human health services, while 30 percent would be used on animal health.

"The Preparedness Plan for the possible outbreak of the influenza is aimed at providing the necessary guidance for effecting activities that enhance the prevention and control of the influenza in the poultry and human population (...) and set up the necessary response to the influenza pandemic," according to a summary of the plan prepared by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Laboratory tests on birds suspected of having died of the H5N1 avian flu virus in Ethiopia in March showed negative results. A public awareness campaign was then launched to dispel fears that bird flu had spread to Ethiopia. The country has between 35 and 50 million chickens, most of which are owned by peasant farmers, according to the government.

Ethiopia, along with the east African Rift Valley countries Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, is considered an avian flu high-risk area because millions of migratory birds flock to the region during the European winter. Although the H5N1 virus has not been known to spread from human to human, people coming into contact with infected birds could easily contract the disease.

Cases of avian influenza have been reported in several countries in Africa, including Djibouti and Sudan, which border on Ethiopia.