New veterinary law targets bird flu

A new Veterinary Law passed on 25 July is good news in the fight against avian influenza (AI - bird flu), given that Laos is surrounded by neighbours that have suffered severe AI outbreaks.

“This is a significant milestone in infectious disease preparedness for this country,” Subhash Morzaria, the AI programme team leader of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Laos, told IRIN. “It is an indication that the government recognises the significance of animal - and public - health and the importance of ensuring bio-food security,” Morzaria said.

The Veterinary Law 2008 establishes a regulatory framework to strengthen veterinary services, contains provisions for greater transparency in reporting AI and other emerging diseases, and sets out disease control measures, including animal and by-product movements, bio-security and hygiene standards.

Because poultry is one of the cheapest sources of protein, Morzaria explained, failure to protect it could worsen food security and poverty. Strong measures to safeguard the health of animals against infectious diseases such as AI are therefore of the utmost importance, he said.

Last year, two people died in Laos from highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), and another outbreak earlier this year resulted in the culling of 5,000 poultry in six northern villages of Luang Nam Thaa Province, according to the authorities.

However, mountainous Laos, with its low population density and scattered poultry farming, has been spared the severity of AI outbreaks in Vietnam and China, according to Kristina Osbjer, operations officer with the FAO AI Programme. Laos thus has some breathing space to develop disease preparedness strategies, she said, but the country lacks basic infrastructure, and its porous borders make it a likely victim of further AI outbreaks.

Photo: Souvannavong/UNICEF Laos
A woman pins up an awareness-raising poster in Vientiane during a UN-backed avian influenza campaign in Laos in 2007

FAO working with government on capacity building

“Short- and long-term capacity are major issues in Laos,” explained Osbjer. “We are therefore working with the government to provide capacity building at grassroots level so they can identify the disease and respond faster to nip it in the bud before it becomes entrenched.”

The programme includes training veterinary staff, animal health workers and village veterinary workers in surveillance techniques; improved detection; and systematic recording and reporting of suspected AI cases.

FAO is also leading an active surveillance project on domestic fowl with the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, focusing on the most at-risk sites.
To complement the enhanced surveillance and identification capacities, FAO is expanding the laboratory capacity of the National Animal Health Centre to conduct improved serology and virus isolation on an increased number of samples, said Osbjer.

Awareness raising

Reinforcing all this work is the communications programme led by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which is ensuring that prevention, recognition and containment information reaches all strata of society.

Photo: Souvannavong/UNICEF Laos
Page from a leaflet used to promote safe cooking of poultry produced as part of UN-backed avian influenza campaign in Laos in 2006

"Getting out the message about the threat posed by AI has been absolutely central to the whole campaign," said UNICEF head of communications in Laos Simon Ingram. "Thanks to some generous funding that we received from the government of Japan in 2006, UNICEF has supported a massive public information campaign delivering key prevention messages to millions of families, using everything from radio and TV spots to touring puppet troupes and networks of village leaders."

While considerable achievements have been made to prepare Laos for future AI outbreaks, Osbjer said the new Veterinary Law alone would not be enough. “We must stress the need for long-term capacity in the animal and public health sector - not just to deal with avian influenza but all infectious diseases. And for that, the government must educate more staff.”