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Knowledge and know-how for avian flu

Poultry can be at risk of avian influenza if exposed to infected wild birds
Poultry can be at risk of avian influenza if exposed to infected wild birds

Seven countries on the African continent are fighting to contain and prevent the further spread of avian influenza. But many more countries remain at risk. The debate continues about how the virus is spread but, lying in the path of seasonal migration routes, Ethiopia is considered at particularly high risk of an outbreak from wild birds. However, the country is the latest in Africa to have approved a contingency plan to strengthen preparedness in the event of a disease outbreak. Whilst other countries in Africa also prepare their national plans, 50 experts met recently in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss how the international research community can help developing countries in their fight against the virus.

The event brought together epidemiologists, geneticists, poultry experts, social scientists and state veterinary officials among others, to consider contributions they could make to short-term service needs as well as medium to long-term research needs. Service needs were defined as actions rather than research. For example, supporting preparedness efforts where outbreaks are anticipated or emergency responses where outbreaks have been reported.

Clear messaging is key

For instance, it was emphasized that simple messages, such as educating the general public on the dangers of smuggling poultry products across borders, could have a big impact in preventing the spread of the disease. As Robyn Alders, a poultry specialist with first-hand experience of avian influenza in south-east Asia said, "there is a lot of information about how we can prevent or control bird flu. But we are not always getting that message across effectively - the immediate need is for us to understand how to communicate effectively."

For veterinary and public health professionals, training in the correct use of diagnostic tools and strengthening laboratory diagnostic capacity was emphasised as an immediate priority. Planning and implementing surveillance will be a difficult task - especially if poor farmers suspect that they will not receive compensation. They are therefore likely to hide or fail to report suspected sick birds. However, outbreak management - such as standardised procedures to coordinate regional responses and avoiding exposing front-line workers to risk of infection - are important considerations for inclusion in contingency plans.

Learning lessons from the past

An important service role of the research community was identified as synthesising lessons learnt from previous outbreaks to improve efficiency and appropriateness of future measures. The issue of compensation following mass culling operations was a case in point: it was felt that there was a great deal of experience that could usefully be captured and used to guide future operations. Oliver Hanotte of ILRI commented that compensation will always be a problem: "It is always lower than what farmers expect in terms of income."

However, despite differing viewpoints it was felt that experiences could usefully be shared. From India, Animal Husbandry Commissioner Dr Bandyophadyay expressed how the country had already learned some valuable lessons from an outbreak there in February this year. He explained that the Indian compensation package "had not considered compensating for the compulsory destruction of the poultry feed, which is stored in the poultry houses. Such lessons will be vital to the international community."

Indigenous bare-necked backyard chicken, Kenya
Indigenous bare-necked backyard chicken, Kenya

Looking ahead

The majority of the consultation was devoted to identifying medium and long-term research needs, especially in relation to the importance of small-scale production and marketing systems in developing countries. Topics relating to molecular biology and genetics included characterisation of circulating strains of the virus, viral persistence in the environment, factors influencing conversion of low pathogenic avian influenza into the highly pathogenic form and vaccine development. John Williams, a geneticist, noted that "there has been a lot of focus on the virus and perhaps less on the host animals. Controlling viral spread is going to come from both understanding the virus but also understanding the host."

Appropriate control options

Researchers were also keen to question whether surveillance and control methods designed primarily for use in the North were the most appropriate for developing countries: what options might there be beyond culling or vaccination and what should be the role of players such as community-based animal health workers? And social scientists stressed the need to investigate the broad range of impacts that avian influenza could have, especially on the poor. Dr Fallou Guyeye from the Senegelese Institute of Agricultural Research (ISRA) highlighted the need for research into the impact of mass culling, particularly on nutrition and to determine the effects of protein deficiency on pregnant women and children. Less obvious impacts include the possible effect on pest control if poultry are removed from farming systems and the loss of indigenous poultry genetic resources during culling operations.

Way forward

Having drawn up extensive wish-lists the participants turned their attention to how these should be addressed. As a first step they developed a common vision, to "target research to help provide solutions for avian influenza prevention and control to improve health and livelihoods in the developing world." An international task force was considered the best way to achieve this vision, with ILRI and IFPRI providing leadership, at least initially. Much of the concerns over avian influenza focus on the potential risk of the H5N1 virus mutating to infect humans as was highlighted by another meeting held in Paris in late June. The vision spelled out by the scientific community in Nairobi is a bold one and much research still needs to be done. The consultation has at least acknowledged the need to address the specific requirements of the developing world.

*The conference was hosted by two centres of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR): the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Date published: July 2006


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