Are you chicken?

Daily News Egypt
9 Min Read

CAIRO: Millions of consumers have stayed away from poultry products ever since the first reported bird flu cases were announced on Feb. 17, while a far smaller number of consumers have also chosen to avoid eating beef following the reported cases of foot and mouth disease.

The economic repercussions of the bird flu scare have hit Egypt’s poultry-related industries as a result of export bans, insufficient governmental compensation to poultry farmers and a host of other factors. The Ministry of Agriculture has announced that each day the poultry industry is incurring losses estimated at $1.5 million; small farmers have sustained the worst losses within the poultry industry.

The cattle industry has been shaken by the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease but has experienced nowhere near the financial devastation inflicted on its counterpart, the poultry industry. In fact, many consumers who have chosen to avoid eating poultry have turned to beef and seafood as alternatives.

No corresponding foot and mouth disease scare on the scale of the bird flu panic has hit consumers, primarily because foot and mouth is not zoonotic, meaning it is not an animal illness that can be transmitted to humans. Avian influenza, on the other hand, is clearly zoonotic.

Ever since February 17, rumors have run rampant regarding bird flu and the threat of consuming poultry products has commonly been over-exaggerated. When dead infected chickens were dumped into the Nile, the bird flu scare turned into a tap water scare, even though Egypt’s chemically treated tap water is not a means of transmission for avian influenza.

Commenting on the widespread misinformation regarding bird flu, the spokesman for the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Jean Jabbour said, Awareness programs are available but not sufficiently so. There s further room for public awareness programs/broadcasts, which may dispel rumors, phobias and false information.

Egyptians, and not only Egyptians but all people living in countries with reported bird flu outbreaks, are excessively scared and often unacquainted with the facts of the avian influenza virus due to the rampant misinformation and rumors, which are widely circulated, he added.

The bird flu scare had begun to subside somewhat in Egypt, but flared up again with the deaths of four women due to the virus.

Although the H5N1 strain of bird flu has the ability to transmit itself to humans, it is a relatively novel occurrence, avian influenza itself is not a new virus. Recent scientific research has pointed to the probability that a mutation of the H1N1 strain of bird flu was behind the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic that claimed the lives of more than 30 million people worldwide. Of the 17 strains and subtypes of the avian influenza virus, only H5N1, H9N2 and H7N7 have crossed the species barrier between birds and humans. H5N1 is the most lethal strain of the virus.

Should people be so alarmed? Are consumers justified in avoiding eating poultry and poultry products?

According to the WHO spokesman, The consumption [or] ingestion of poultry is extremely unlikely to spread the avian influenza virus from birds to humans; the human digestive system is not one of the primary means by which the virus may spread.

Jabbour went on to clarify that bird flu contagion occurs primarily via close human contact with infected poultry, especially during the process of de-feathering and slaughtering birds because the virus can be easily transmitted by respiration [or] breathing in the influenza during the process of feather removal and by infected bird blood, fluids and excrement coming in contact with the open wounds of the person handling the infected poultry.

Andrew Spiegel, spokesman for the Cairo-based Naval Marine Research Unit, concurred. Handling of poultry is a threat only if the bird being handled carries the avian influenza. The virus may be transmitted via respiration, but also through the bird s excrement, blood or fluids if it comes in contact with a cut on the skin.

If the poultry is approved by the standards set by the Egyptian Health Ministry and the WHO then its consumption is safe and consequently the chance of contamination for consumers will be kept very low, he added.

The WHO guidelines for the handling of poultry states that nobody has ever become infected with H5N1 from eating cooked poultry products. Even in areas experiencing outbreaks, poultry and poultry products can be safely consumed, given that they are properly cooked and properly handled during food preparation.

The H5N1 virus is heat-sensitive, and reaching 70oC throughout cooked food (normal temperatures used for cooking), will destroy the virus. Consumers need to make sure that all parts of the poultry are fully cooked. This means with no raw or pink parts. Eggs, too, are to be properly cooked, with no runny yolks. If these guidelines are followed, there is no threat of infection whatsoever from consumption of poultry.

In terms of the consumption of red meat, as mentioned above, foot and mouth disease does not pose a threat of human infection. This disease, which has reached epidemic proportions, killing thousands of cattle in at least five governorates, affects only grazing animals. The texture of meat infected with foot and mouth disease is characteristically knotty and blood-clotted.

Although foot and mouth disease is not zoonotic, veterinarians from the Ministry of Agriculture have publicly forecasted the possible resurfacing of two serious zoonotic diseases, namely brucella and bovine tuberculosis. Both these diseases have been reported in Egypt in previous years.

Brucella is a contagious animal disease that also affects humans and can lead to sterility in men and miscarriages in pregnant women. It can be transmitted from an infected animal to a human through direct contact with the animal or by consuming its non-pasteurized dairy products, although it is not usually found in meat.

Bovine tuberculosis, like brucella, is generally not found in meat but rather in non-pasteurized milk; it can also be spread from infected animals to humans by respiration and may cause serious lung infections as well as deformities of the skin and bones.

Jabbour clarified that there are presently no confirmed reports of these two diseases; just lots of rumors – these viruses are not a real threat at the current time. Reports may be confirmed when samples are tested as being positive for these diseases, otherwise there s no need for circulating more rumors and spreading further fear amongst consumers.

Along the same lines, other prominent veterinarians from the Ministry of Agriculture have made public announcements on TV and radio programs that are impossible to verify – one vet declared that it could take up to 150 years to rid Egypt of the bird flu.

In response to the aforementioned declaration, Spiegel said, “One simply cannot estimate or guess when the cases of bird flu outbreaks and infections could be eradicated in Egypt. One can trace the routes of migratory birds, but can never really forecast when and where the bird flu is going. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to eliminate bird flu from Egypt.

During a dietary health conference conducted last month, Port Said s Port Authority President Hisham El Sersawi recommended that those who choose to avoid eating poultry and are missing out on their protein should “eat large quantities of mushrooms.

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