Return of the bird flu threat

Avian flu has re-emerged in Bangladesh after four months, with five reported new outbreaks in poultry farms across the country since October.

The contagious viral disease was first detected in Bangladesh in March 2007. Since then there have been 55 outbreaks in 19 of the country’s 64 districts.

To halt a further spread of the virus, more than 250,000 chickens have been culled since the original outbreak.

“But indirect losses to farmers far surpass the direct loss,” veterinarian Abul Kalam Azad of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told IRIN in Dhaka, the capital.

Many farms have downsized operations, resulting in significant layoffs and the suspension of business, while producers of poultry feed and farm equipment have also been hard hit.

“The whole US$2 billion industry is in a very nervous state,” Azad explained.

A fresh influx of migratory birds is raising further concerns. Hundreds of thousands of Siberian water fowl arrive in Bangladesh from mid-November, taking refuge in the country’s vast rivers, lakes and marshlands.

“The winter months are likely to see more outbreaks,” ASM Alamgir, a virologist at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research, warned.

And though a permanent relationship between migratory birds and bird flu has yet to be proven beyond a doubt, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “scientists are increasingly convinced that some migratory waterfowl are now carrying the H5N1 virus in its highly pathogenic form, sometimes over long distances, and introducing the virus to poultry flocks in areas that lie along their migratory routes” - all of which worries health officials in Bangladesh.

Risk factors

“At 795 persons per square kilometre, Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world. This close proximity of human beings is a risk element for transmission of any contagious disease like flu,” Nazrul Haq, a member of the government’s technical working group on avian influenza risk, said, adding that the hot and humid environment helps pathogens spread quickly.


Photo: Tahira Sarwar/IRIN
There are over 100,000 small and medium sized poultry farms in Bangladesh today

Further compounding the problem is the prominent role of poultry farming. Almost all rural households keep chickens as a source of cheap protein, with about 2.4 million rural women depending on backyard chicken farming as their only source of livelihood. Even well-off families in Bangladesh raise a few chickens to supplement their income.

As a result, communicating appropriate bio-security practices such as separating domestic flocks from wild ones, hygienic slaughtering and waste disposal, use of masks while cleaning chicken coops, disinfection before and after working in poultry farms, as well as the use of personal protective equipment is already proving difficult.

“Behaviours don’t change overnight,” Habibur Rahman of the Bangladesh Agricultural University told IRIN. “Most of these farms do not maintain necessary sanitary and preventive measures essential for keeping chicken safe from infection,” he added, estimating that there were well over 100,000 small and medium-sized farms in the country.

World Bank loan

In July, the Bangladesh government signed an agreement worth $16 million with the International Development Association, the World Bank’s concessionary arm, to minimise a possible bird flu threat.

The Avian Influenza Preparedness and Response Project supports the government's National Avian Influenza and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan and is designed to control infections in domestic poultry, while at the same time formulating plans to control and respond to possible human infections, especially an influenza epidemic and related emergencies.

The project will be co-financed initially by a $2 million grant from the bank’s Avian and Human Influenza facility; a grant that will be administered by the World Bank and is supported by nine donors, including the European Commission.

Government measures

Meanwhile, officials in Bangladesh have also taken measures, including a ban on the import of poultry-related products from affected countries, monitoring of imported day-old chicks from non-affected countries, the control of illegal poultry product trading, an improvement of laboratory facilities, as well as forming a national task force representing relevant stakeholders - including the private sector.

The government has imposed a 1km restricted area around any confirmed infection point and all poultry within the area is culled, while strict controls are imposed on the movement of poultry and poultry products within a 10km radius.

According to Abdul Motaleb, director of the government’s department of livestock, the proper disposal of dead birds and contaminated materials such as eggs and faeces is also now ensured, while surveillance and monitoring have been strengthened.

“We have trained 320,000 community volunteers on bird flu prevention. They are going from door-to-door in rural Bangladesh to communicate and train women on safe and sanitary practices that can prevent bird flu,” Motaleb added.

According to WHO, as of 12 November, 335 humans have been infected with the virus globally, of whom 206 died. That means 61 out of every 100 human cases are fatal. Nine of the 12 countries where bird to human transmission took place are in Asia.

There have been no cases of human infection in Bangladesh.

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