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Homeland Security

EGYPT: $450m needed for new bird flu campaign

CAIRO, 22 February 2007 (IRIN) - Egypt will embark on a new nationwide campaign to vaccinate live poultry against avian influenza, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said on Wednesday. The plan comes after a second wave of the H5N1 influenza subtype in the country led to the deaths of seven people since October 2006.

The first wave began in February 2006, and while the disease appeared under control during the summer months, it resurfaced with the onset of winter. To date, 22 human cases of infection with H5N1 have been reported in Egypt. Out of them, 13 people died. The latest was a 37-year-old woman from Fayyoum province who died on 16 February.

The new campaign, which the Egyptian government estimates will cost US $450 million, involves the purchase of 100 million vaccine doses for birds.

The resurgence of H5N1 among animals and humans – and reports of a drug-resistant mutation of the virus – has heightened fears that bid flu may develop into a disease that can be transmitted between humans. But officials also point to the ongoing threat to the food security of Egypt’s rural poor – for whom so-called ?backyard birds’ are an integral part of daily diets and income.

“A chicken is breakfast, lunch and dinner in Egypt,” said Dr John Jabbour, a senior epidemiologist with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) office in Cairo. “Forty-three percent of [the population’s] protein comes from poultry.”

While bird infections in commercial farms have been largely controlled, the disease is still present among domestically reared animals.

But the WHO is keen to emphasise that, as yet, there is no new strain of avian influenza, alleviating fears of a human pandemic. “We had some mutation. It happened in two human cases in Gharbiyya [a province north of Cairo] and then died out,” said Jabbour.

According to officials on Egypt’s Supreme Committee for Avian Influenza, the factors that make poultry so important to Egypt’s rural poor – chickens and ducks are cheap and easy to rear at home – are the same factors that will make the vaccination programme an enormous task.

“It’s not like, for example, vaccinating against polio,” said Dr Abdel Nasser Ahmed, a disease surveillance official at the Ministry of Health. “If you go into a house, there are maybe one or two children. But there may be 10, 20 or even 30 birds in each,” he said.

Officials estimate that there are still around 135 million backyard birds in Egypt.

Prevention measures

During Egypt’s first wave of bird flu, from February until May 2006, around 60 million commercially reared birds were culled, devastating the local poultry industry. But domestically reared birds, although smaller in number, are the major source of human infection.

Now, it is hoped that a new mass vaccination programme, combined with compensation for bird-owners, will lessen the spread of infection, encourage good surveillance and safeguard food security for the rural poor.

“We will be buying the doses of vaccine this week, and also we are recruiting 1,200 recent veterinary graduates for the vaccination programme,” Dr Mona Mahrez of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture told IRIN. “And we are considering compensation methods for owners of backyard birds.”

Compensation funds, according to officials, were widely abused by unscrupulous farmers during the first outbreak in 2006. Infected birds were reportedly sold for as much as LE1,000 (US $175) so that farmers could infect their own stock and claim compensation, instead of selling in a depressed market.

Officials are now considering a new scheme that will see culled infected birds replaced with vaccinated chicks and feedstock, instead of cash payments. In addition, a plan to limit the movement of birds – and hence the spread of the virus – is under consideration by the Supreme Committee.

“We would set up four zones in Egypt, and create 10-15km exclusion zones between them,” said Dr Talib Ali, a member of the committee and a representative of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Programme. “There would be no birds or chicks allowed to move between the zones,” he added.

Although around 22 million backyard birds have already been vaccinated, the new plan to cover the entire domestic poultry population is due to get under way within a few days. The Egyptian government is at present appealing to international donor organisations to help raise the US $450 million needed to effectively tackle avian influenza.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
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