Magazine article The Middle East

Bird Flu Threat Causes Mounting Concern: The Countries of the Middle East Are on Red Alert for Any Evidence of Avian Flu. However, as Richard Seymour Discovered, the Scale of the Problem Is Difficult to Assess and Will Remain So, Unless Certain Regional Precautionary Measures Are Introduced Soon

Magazine article The Middle East

Bird Flu Threat Causes Mounting Concern: The Countries of the Middle East Are on Red Alert for Any Evidence of Avian Flu. However, as Richard Seymour Discovered, the Scale of the Problem Is Difficult to Assess and Will Remain So, Unless Certain Regional Precautionary Measures Are Introduced Soon

Article excerpt

AVIAN FLU IS NOW NO LONGER A blight affecting only the rural areas of Southeast Asia with their overcrowded poultry markets and chickens roaming free in backyards. Every nation west of countries such as Turkey, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam has been nervously looking over its shoulder, hoping the virus does not spread its way, but knowing that it is probably only a matter of time.

Turkey, the socio-political axis of Asia, Europe and the Middle East was the first country outside the Southeast Asia region to be hit by the virus that was, to those as far apart as the United Kingdom and Yemen, close enough to home to warrant serious concern.

To date, there have been 18 cases in Turkey of the human strain of bird flu, H5N1, with three fatalities. United Nations coordinator for bird flu, Dr David Nabarro, has described the Turkish outbreak as "major" and warned the virus will continue to spread.

The Turkish government has ordered a cull of over 100,000 chickens, but many residents of outlying villages have refused to carry out the culling of their own stocks. Further hampering the efforts to limit the spread is the sheer scale of the problem, with many areas yet to be visited by health officials.

The virus is spread, primarily, by migratory birds, though it may be passed to humans via close contact with infected poultry. While many migratory birds are immune to the effects of the virus, they operate as effective carriers and may pass it on to other birds which are more susceptible. When the faeces of infected birds are excreted and become dry, they can disintegrate and enter the atmosphere and be inhaled, along with the virus, by humans. Symptoms of bird flu in humans are similar to those of common flu.

Of the strains of bird flu which can be fatal to humans, it is H5N1 that is currently causing concern among scientists. The fear is that the virus will mutate into a form that can be passed from human to human.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that another flu pandemic may well be overdue. During the 20th Century, three flu pandemics killed more than 50m people. And while the H5N1 strain is known to not pass easily from bird to human, if a mutation does occur, every country on the planet will be affected. The WHO has devised a plan that will require cooperation on a global scale if a pandemic is to be, if not prevented, then at least limited. Guidelines have been issued that call for a change in traditional farming methods, which are a potential hotspot for the spread of H5N1 to humans.

However, such is the nature of the poultry-farming industry in the poorer parts of Southeast Asia, that changes will take many years to put into place, if they are ever fully implemented at all.

Significantly, the spread of the virus through populations of wild birds will remain unchecked as there are no feasible systems to counter it.

The second line of defence against the spread of the virus is early control of outbreaks at their sources. The Turkish government has launched a public awareness campaign so that first signs of a possible outbreak can be detected, but there is an understandable reluctance among poorer farmers to admit to such outbreaks for fear of financial ruin. …

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