KABUL, 24 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that Afghanistan is at risk from avian influenza, also known as bird flu, and has called for US $1.5 million in donor assistance to thwart a possible outbreak of the disease.
"Afghanistan is at a crossroads of the migration routes of many bird species and the country is at risk - the enemy is at the gate," Serge Verniau, FAO representative in Afghanistan, alerted at a press conference at the Qargha Lake, just outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Monday. "We need to act now and in a practical way."
According to FAO, the country's veterinary services have fallen into decay after more than two decades of violence and years of oversight, while about 85 percent of the country's 30 million inhabitants live in close contact with poultry.
"The FAO is concerned that donors have neglected the support of public veterinary services," Verniau added.
In an effort to address that, the UN agency has proposed a three-pronged strategy that includes strengthening animal disease surveillance and laboratory facilities, raising public awareness, as well as preparing an emergency plan in case of an outbreak in the war-ravaged country, Assadullah Azhari, public information officer for the agency, explained.
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.
Afghanistan's neighbour Iran has destroyed thousands of birds along its border with Turkey to create a buffer against the spread of the flu from that country, where some 21 cases have been confirmed since 4 January: four of those infected have died of the disease.
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 World Health Organization (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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