Avian Influenza

ISLAMABAD, Feb 12: The Food and Agriculture Organization has approved a $390,000 emergency assistance for Pakistan to control "avian influenza outbreaks in all poultry species so as to stop the transmission of the disease from poultry to humans."

The UN bodies, FAO and WHO, confirmed that Pakistan was infected with H-7 strain of avian influenza and said "avian influenza poses serious human health risks".

The approval for assistance brings into question the stance of the country\'s health authorities who have been asking people not to panic as there is no threat of transmission of the disease to humans.

The executive director of the National Institute of Health, Athar Saeed Dil, said H-7 strain was infectious under certain conditions, particularly to those exposed to the environment were not careful. He, however, maintained, that no case of human infection had been detected in the country.

During interviews, officials did not agree with the view that Pakistan did not have adequate diagnostic facilities for the detection of human infection caused by H-7 strain.

Part of the FAO assistance to Pakistan is for "enhancing" the diagnostic facilities, the agreement signed between the food ministry and FAO disclosed. It is pointed out that a meeting held in the health ministry on Jan 27 was informed that H-7 and H-9 strains of virus were not transferable to humans.

The FAO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the WHO\'s technical consultation early this month found that the current epidemic "is considered to be evolving, and it is anticipated to continue to expand both in geographical distribution and incidence".

However, the FAO said that even during serious outbreaks the virus rarely affected large numbers of people. But, the findings disclosed, "as the number of infected people increases, so too does the possibility that a new virus strain might evolve from an exchange between human influenza and avian flu genomes".

In reply to a question about increased risks to humans, Dr Dil said the virus could become deadly if it underwent mutation by mixing with human influenza virus.

The FAO further found that "avian influenza can be caused by one of around 23 different strains of virus, all of which are type A members of the Orthomyxoviridae virus family."

The agreement signed between the FAO and government came in the wake of the recommendations of FAO task force formed to monitor crisis and provide technical support to affected countries.

The FAO head office approved giving emergency assistance to Pakistan on Feb 2 along with authorization of three other missions to Cambodia, the Lao People\'s Democratic Republic and Vietnam.

According to the UN sources, the objectives of the Pakistan project would be defined during the inception mission of the project. They would include preparation of a zoning plan where culling could start in areas with the highest incidence and risk of disease, and training of farmers and government workers on safe disposal techniques and precaution.

The FAO-funded project would also aim to lay groundwork for a national epidemiological study of the disease through surveillance, mapping and disease modelling. Officials told Dawn that early disease warning systems were required for effective preventive measures and early detection of any new disease.

The technical consultation of the UN bodies found that the "epidemic is not considered to be under control, and therefore, required a concerted emergency response."

"There will be a continuing threat to human health as long as the infection is present in the poultry production systems in Asia," the technical consultation\'s report said.

According to the FAO, the control strategies, including planning and start of mass slaughter of poultry, are currently under implementation in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China and Taiwan Province of China. Moreover, vaccination has started or ordered in Central and Southern China, Taiwan province of China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Facts about bird flu

Here is a look at the bird flu spreading through Asia.

WHAT IS IT: A form of influenza believed to strike all birds, though domestic poultry are believed especially prone to it. It also has jumped to humans, though no human-to-human transmission has been reported.

WHERE IS IT: Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Laos. Pakistan says it had detected bird flu, though the World Health Organization has not yet