KABUL, 22 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that efforts by Afghan authorities and the donor community to mitigate the risk of a potential outbreak of avian influenza, otherwise known as bird flu, have been insufficient.
"With cases of the deadly disease detected in Iran and India, Afghanistan is practically surrendered," Serge Verniau, FAO representative in Afghanistan, said at a press conference at the Kala-e-Hashmat Khan Lake, outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Wednesday. "Today we can say that an outbreak of the disease among birds in Afghanistan is virtually unavoidable."
Further underscoring that point, he warned that the country was more at risk than ever and Afghanistan needed strict action before avian flu hit the country.
"[The] FAO reiterates its call that emergency action, which is estimated to cost US $1.5 million, should be taken without delay," the FAO official maintained.
According to the FAO, the country's veterinary services have fallen into decay after more than two decades of violence and years of oversight, despite the fact that about 85 percent of the country's 30 million inhabitants live in close proximity with poultry.
The FAO has called for immediate action in strengthening animal disease surveillance and laboratory testing; communication and public awareness to safeguard the health of poultry farmers and their families; as well as preparing an effective contingency plan for emergency procedures to contain a possible outbreak.
To date, avian influenza, a highly contagious viral disease affecting mainly chickens, turkeys, ducks and other birds, has killed some 80 people worldwide since it was first reported in 2003, mostly in Asia.
Experts fear the H5N1 virus that is deadly to humans could precipitate a global flu pandemic if it mutates into an easily transmissible form.
The FAO, with the support of Italy, through a regional project, has reinforced the capacities of a diagnostic laboratory at the department of animal health within the Ministry of Agriculture in Kabul. Initial tests have been carried out and are continuing, according to the FAO in Kabul.
"We have tested 455 suspicious samples of birds during the last three weeks and further testing is also under way in an FAO reference laboratory in Italy," Dr Abdul Habib Nawroz, an FAO medical expert, said.
Commenting on the potential risk of a bird flu outbreak in the Central Asian state, Dr Abdullah Fahim, an Afghan health ministry spokesman, said that the government had banned imports of all poultry and poultry products from counties infected with bird flu.
"We have provided specific training on avian influenza to 300 medical personal and they are deployed in the border areas of the country to strengthen the surveillance system," Fahim noted.
But facing such a possible pandemic will require much more. The war-ravaged country has minimal health services and relies on the World Health Organization (WHO) for diagnosis of any possible signs of bird flu.
"In case of detecting any sign of bird flu in the country, we would send the samples to the WHO-supported regional laboratory in Islamabad (capital of Pakistan)," Fahim said, conceding their own inability to fully detect the virus in their own laboratories.
Afghanistan mostly depends on poultry imports from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, and it's also a stop for birds during their annual migration from Siberia to the warm waters of the Indian subcontinent and vice versa.
Avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds caused by type A strains of the influenza virus. The disease, which was first identified in Italy more than 100 years ago, occurs worldwide, according to the WHO.
All birds are thought to be susceptible to avian influenza, though some species are more resistant to infection than others. Infection causes a wide spectrum of symptoms in birds, ranging from mild illness to a highly contagious and rapidly fatal disease resulting in severe epidemics. The latter is known as "highly pathogenic avian influenza". This form is characterised by sudden onset, severe illness and rapid death, with a mortality that can approach 100 percent.
The WHO notes that 15 sub-types of influenza virus are known to infect birds, thus providing an extensive reservoir of influenza viruses potentially circulating in bird populations. To date, all outbreaks of the highly pathogenic form have been caused by influenza A viruses of sub-types H5 and H7.
Migratory waterfowl, most notably wild ducks, are the natural reservoir of avian influenza viruses and these birds are also the most resistant to infection. Domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys, are particularly susceptible to epidemics of rapidly fatal influenza, the UN health body warned.
Direct or indirect contact of domestic flocks with wild migratory waterfowl has been implicated as a frequent cause of epidemics. Live bird markets have also played an important role in the spread of the disease.
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