Bird flu action plan on course

Bird flu preparedness efforts are being strengthened in Nepal, after recent incidents of the H5N1 virus in nearby India raised alarm among local communities, particularly in the southeast.

Although there have been no incidents of avian influenza in the Himalayan nation since the virus first struck India in 2006, the Nepalese government is taking additional precautionary measures to mitigate against any risk with the help of the UN and World Bank by implementing the Avian Influenza Control Project (AICP) this year, according to project officials.

In 2007, the World Bank provided a grant of US$18.2 million to the Nepalese government-run AICP for four years.

"We have worked a lot on our preparedness and response plan," Jeetendra Man Shrestha, AICP's deputy coordinator, told IRIN in the capital, Kathmandu.

"We are also strengthening our surveillance of any illegal imports of chickens and poultry products from India," he said.

According to the UN, Nepal remains vulnerable given the large number of migrating birds, which are natural carriers of the virus and rest and pass through the country periodically.

Moreover, there is a widespread traditional practice of mixed animal farming and cross-border importation of both eggs and chickens. The country also has a large poultry industry, which represents almost 10 percent of its agricultural gross domestic product.

The UN warns that in a scenario of uncontrolled outbreaks, a substantial proportion of the population would be exposed to the risk of infection.

High-risk zones

In January, there were reports of a bird flu epidemic in 13 out of 19 districts of West Bengal, an Indian state bordering Nepal's southeastern region.

In response, the Nepal authorities banned the importation of poultry and related products such as eggs.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
The government banned the import of poultry products from India earlier this year

Six districts in southeast Nepal were declared high-risk zones, including Jhapa, Morang, Ilam, Pachthar, Taplejung and Sunsari.

According to the AICP, more surveillance teams are being trained and all local government officials have been asked to be more alert following news of Indian poultry and related products being illegally imported into Nepal along the border.

"We need support from civil society groups [NGOs and community organisations] and local people and health workers to control the trade of Indian poultry as that would pose a danger to all," explained AICP's Shrestha.

NGOs and health workers could help by raising public awareness of the threat of illegally imported poultry, he said.

Medical stocks

"We have already stockpiled our personal protective [PP] equipment and anti-viral medicines in all the high-alert districts and we stand prepared if there is any suspected flu case," said Shrestha.

According to the AICP, the government now has more than 9,000 PP sets donated by USAID, comprising protective coveralls, aprons, shoes, masks and glasses in the event of a bird flu outbreak.

The government, with the UN, is also helping to provide rapid response training to a large number of healthcare workers and local authorities.

Shrestha explained that over the past two years, Nepal has taken a number of preventative measures and more government agencies are being included in the process.
Among the key government ministries are home affairs, health, agriculture and local development.

The World Health Organization has been playing a key role by providing technical help to the government, while the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is helping in raising community awareness about the virus.