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Homeland Security

AFGHANISTAN: Gov't steps up fight against bird flu

KABUL, 28 February 2007 (IRIN) - Chickens are a way of life for 36-year-old Abdul Gaffar. He sells live and slaughtered chickens along a busy street in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where hundreds of chickens, turkeys and pigeons are kept in portable coops by vendors like him.

“These are healthy home-chickens,” touted Gaffar as he defeathered a slaughtered chicken with his hands.

But along busy Pol-e-Khishti street chicken faeces, feathers and blood litter the roadside.

“I have been doing this job [selling and slaughtering chickens] for over five years,” said the owner of a dozen ill-looking chickens who scoffed at the possibility of bird flu breaking out.

On Saturday, the Afghan government confirmed four cases of the H5N1 virus in chickens in the two eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, both bordering Pakistan.

“We vaccinate thousands of chickens every day in Jalalabad city,” said Dr Azizullah Usmani, director of Afghanistan’s Department of Animal Health and Production at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL).

In the quarantined areas of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, where the virus was detected, hundreds of domestic birds were culled by MAIL workers and in Usmani’s words “owners duly compensated”.

But mitigating the risks of a possible outbreak of bird flu in Afghanistan poses a challenge.

Although the importation of poultry products from Pakistan and other countries where bird flu has been confirmed has been banned, officials doubt the efficiency of the measure.

Infiltration of insurgents

“We cannot stop the infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan,” conceded Dr Abdullah Fahim, advisor to the health ministry, adding that “it is naïve to expect a ban on chickens and eggs to realistically work”.

Chickens and eggs play a crucial economic role among many poor rural families who keep scores of backyard flocks unregistered.

Poultry vaccinators have to knock on every door in a designated area and negotiate entry in order to respect tradition, particularly when the male head of household is away and women are home alone.

Despite these obvious problems, Afghan authorities have confidence in their ability to curb the spread of the virus.

“We started from scratch last year [2006],” Usmani said. “And now we have a well-equipped diagnostic laboratory, a sufficient budget and trained staff.”

The World Bank and other donors have pledged US $13 million to help Afghanistan fight avian influenza over the coming three years.

The package also covers an awareness campaign, informing the public of the risks , means of transmission and prevention of the disease, which was first confirmed in the country in March 2006.

No human case

To date, Afghanistan's health ministry reports that there has not been a single human case of bird flu in the country. This, despite media reports on Wednesday that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Kabul was waiting to test the blood samples of two men in Kunar suffering from bird flu symptoms.

Should those cases be confirmed, treatment is available. “In Kabul and some other major cities hospitals are supplied with the appropriate medicine to treat patients infected with bird flu,” said Fahim, adding that “although treatment is expensive, we can do it”.

According to the World Health Organization, the deadly H5N1 viral strain of bird flu poses two main risks for human health. The risk of direct infection when the virus passes from poultry to human, resulting in a very severe disease and possibly death, and the risk of – if the virus changes form – human to human infection.

Afghanistan is one of the least developed countries in the world. Around half of its estimated 25 million inhabitants live below the poverty line with less than US $2 a day.

When signs of illness appear in chickens, most Afghans slaughter them for consumption because of poverty.

For men like Abdul Gaffar who have no other means to provide for their families, "it’s no big deal" – virus or no virus – despite the risks.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
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