A nationwide campaign to stop the spread of H5N1 avian influenza in Egypt is to be launched by the government in a few weeks, say officials, but details are still sketchy. The new plan, which will involve coordination between the Health Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry and poultry producers, requires close monitoring and various bio-safety measures.
“These measures are just a small part of a more general plan to curb the spread of the virus in our country,” Saber Abdel Aziz, a senior official from the state-run General Organization for Veterinary Services, told IRIN. “We will also offer incentives to poultry growers to look for signs of illness in their animals, report sick ones, and practice bio-security.”
H5N1 has infected 159 and killed 55 people in Egypt since 2006.
The most recent fatalities occurred on 19 January 2012 – a two-year-old girl from Cairo, and a 31-year-old man from Fayoum Governorate in the Nile Delta.
Epidemiological investigations indicated they had both been exposed to backyard poultry.
Abdel Aziz and his colleagues at the General Organization for Veterinary Services say they will work hard to prevent this from happening again by applying bio-security prevention measures.
“Taking commonsense precautions to prevent the disease from coming onto a farm is a cornerstone of keeping the poultry healthy,” he said. “But apart from these commonsense precautions, we will give training to poultry farm workers, make basic infection control, and promote the use of personal protective equipment.”
Aziz said, however, that funding for the plan was still being negotiated with the Finance Ministry.
The latest two avian flu deaths, along with a Health Ministry announcement that 2011 saw the highest number of H5N1 infections ever, has created anxiety across the country. The ministry said 40 people had contracted the virus in 2011, up from 23 in 2010. More shocking still, 16 of the 40 who contracted the virus last year died.
Amr Qandeel, head of preventive medicine at the Health Ministry, attributed the rise in virus infections to a weakening supervisory role of the government.
Exactly a year has passed since the start of the Egyptian uprising. During this time there have been three different health ministers; widespread strikes and political unrest; and the police have been either in a degree of disarray or preoccupied with containing demonstrations: Tackling H5N1 and enforcing bio-safety measures has inevitably, therefore, not been a top government priority.
In 2010, the government took measures to curb bird flu infections, including banning inter-governorate poultry movements and acting against poultry breeders who did not abide by the declared safety measures. But independent health experts like Saeed Aun say more needs to be done.
Egyptians, particularly in poor districts and the countryside, rear chickens and other animals at home. Aun describes this home breeding of birds as “risky”. Unlicensed poultry farms – numbering around 40,000 – are also a challenge.
“These are places the government does not reach,” Aun said. “This means that any talk about preventive measures will be futile as long as this very large number of farms is not part of the process.”