Health officials look to assuage bird flu fears

Vivian Salama
8 Min Read

CAIRO: Restaurants across much of the country have stopped serving chicken. Supermarkets are selling out of mineral water following word that the Nile-source drinking water may be contaminated. Multiple theories have emerged regarding bird flu: how it got here, where it came from, who s in danger and how to protect yourself.

In an effort to assuage the fears of Egyptians, the Ministry of Health and Population designated hotlines for citizens to call in with questions. Not all personnel responsible for answering the hotlines proved well-prepared to ease bird flu fears. It was only after being bombarded with phone calls that Grand Hyatt executive chef, and non-Arabic speaking, Peter Washbourne discovered one of those hotline numbers was his home phone number.

Today, cases of the avian bird flu have been discovered in 12 of Egypt s 26 governorates. Members of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) meanwhile, are working tirelessly to get to the root of this crisis, much of which authorities blame on the rumor-mill that has spun out of control since the Egyptian government first announced the outbreak last week. While experts worldwide continue to search for an effective vaccine to contain the spread of avian influenza, or bird flu, Egypt has been a focus for hasty problem-solving, as it is both the most populated country in the Middle East and Africa, as well as a gateway between the two. Prior to the outbreak, Egypt sourced some one million chickens per day – 700,000 tons of poultry meat annually, up from 100,000 tons in 1979. Until last week, 300,000 chickens were slaughtered for consumption. In any developing nation that bases its protein intake almost entirely on chicken, bird flu presents a domino-effect of problems that essentially cripples the economy. “When you import animals in this part of the world, legally and illegally, that animal brings diseases with it, explains Talib Ali Elam, regional animal production and health officer for FAO. We don’t have livestock. We import a lot. We are talking about food security now. We don t have it. Both the Quran and the Bible illustrate massive droughts that would repeatedly sweep the holy land. Elam says even in modern times, droughts trigger a gamete of problems, namely Transboundary Animal Diseases (TAD) that directly strike a country s livestock. Egypt has already fallen victim to Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Also, over the last 30 years, pastoral land has fallen victim to modernization; roads and buildings now occupy land that once served agricultural purposes. Limited land directly limits a country s domestic livestock production.

Along the Red Sea, down the Nile and throughout the Delta, Egypt has what is called Imported Bird Areas, or IBAs. Acknowledging the potential threat of bird flu, or any TAD, the Egyptian government two years ago established these protectorates, 39 in all, for the surveillance and testing of imported wild birds. Egypt serves as a transit for the birds, many of which go on to other destinations in the Middle East and Africa, but it also acts as a barrier for preventing the spread of TAD. Some 16,000 samples had been taken from birds in the IBAs prior to the discovery of bird flu.

“You talk about 6 percent of the world s population in MENA alone. That s a lot and it is increasing rapidly, Elam notes. Bare in mind, these are mouths, they have to eat meat. It s like a fast-moving train. In Egypt, the train was coming; they were putting blockades to stop it, but you can t.

Poultry accounts for 25 percent of meat consumption worldwide, according to the FAO. In Egypt, 50 percent of the meat intake is poultry. In Iraq, where the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu is blamed for the death of a 15-year old Kurdish girl, poultry makes up a massive 80 percent of the meat intake.

“In poultry development, there is a horizontal development and vertical, explains Elam. Horizontal means you increase the quantity of the animal, but you cannot because you have limitations. But they can vertical increase the quality of the animal … milk producing quality, for example.

Despite its overwhelmingly high population, Elam says Egypt is better off than most countries in the Middle East and Africa given its veterinary services. The General Organization for Veterinary Services (GOVS) says an estimated 12,000 veterinarians are currently working in Egypt, with 27 central veterinary labs.

“Africa doesn t have the veterinary support system and it cannot face this problem. It s too big for them, warns Elam.

Authorities with the FAO warn that citizens wary of contracting the illness must make the distinction between wild birds and all others. Many people in developing countries across the Middle East raise chickens and pigeons in their backyards or on rooftops. Until now, no pigeons have been diagnosed with any form of bird flu. In collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the FAO has developed a manual in Arabic that details strategies for safe, modern, hygienic poultry development, saying Egypt s backyard poultry industry will have the rare opportunity to rebuild from scratch.

Health officials say the outbreak in Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria or any place else is no reason for panic, but rather, those in contact with live chicken should exercise a little vigilance. Those who handle chickens are advised to wear gloves and take extra precautionary measures. Also, as with the cases in Turkey, children are easily susceptible to contract bird flu and so parents are advised to exercise extreme care. Elam insists, however, that with a little understanding, the world may realize that birds aren t entirely to blame.

“The virus carried by wild bird, yes we agree on that, he says. But when you deliver it to farms and you go all over the country, the bird doesn t take it into the villages. No! It s the activity of man. We have to control the movement of birds but it also moves around with man-to-man activities.

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