Bird flu has flown

C&I Issue 2, 2017

A vian influenza was confirmed in Uganda in January 2017 after more than 1000 white winged black terns died on Lake Victoria’s Lutembe bay, while some deaths of domestic ducks and chicken deaths were reported in Masaka and Kalangala districts. The terns migrate from areas such as Tunisia and Morocco where bird flu outbreaks are common.

Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries says five domestic ducks and one hen from Masaka district tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on diagnosis at the country’s National Animal Disease Diagnostics and Epidemiology Centre. The test results were confirmed by the Uganda Virus Research Institute.

However, unlike similar outbreaks in the last 12 years in West and Central Africa, Uganda appears to have developed a strong surveillance system following a bird flu scare in 2005 when the disease spread from Egypt to bordering Sudan.

The system was partly backed by the World Bank, which in 2008 provided Uganda with more than $10m to finance the country’s four-year avian and human influenza preparedness and response project.

By the time bird flu was detected in early January 2017, the Ugandan government had already developed literature, training response teams and written response plans to counter any bird flu outbreak, according to Noeline Nantima, assistant commissioner Animal Disease Control Programme at the Ministry of Agriculture.

‘We already know what it takes to fight the disease,’ said Nantima, adding that Uganda has an aggressive bird flu control plan to avert spread of the disease to humans and livestock. With the advantage of being landlocked, 236,040km2 Uganda has mapped out districts with high numbers of unlicensed, smallscale poultry farms and trained additional veterinarians and health officials to help control the disease in case of an outbreak. The control plan implemented in January was supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization, Centre for Disease Control and the Red Cross.

Although the government said it will take at least six months before Uganda confirms if it’s free of bird flu, its agencies seem to be focusing more on preventive than curative measures, especially at a time when the WHO says drugs for the disease ‘are not easily available in sufficient quantities’.

However, the bird flu outbreak in January helped to expose some weaknesses on existing systems for the control and management of the disease across sub Saharan Africa. For example, it emerged that Uganda, just like many countries in the region, does not have a policy on how to cater for farmers whose poultry or animals are killed to control further disease spread. Uganda’s Animals Disease Act merely gives veterinarians authority to kill livestock, leaving farmers at risk of indebtedness and poverty.

In addition, some samples from the dead birds in Uganda had to be sent to Italy to test for the highly pathogenic ‘N’ elements. This could take time, yet the fast-spreading nature of the disease calls for emergency measures based on confirmed laboratory results.

It is time Uganda, on its own or in partnership with other East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, pulled resources together and established modern laboratories for carrying out the more advanced laboratory tests in the war against bird flu.

Even if Uganda implements the most effective bird flu surveillance systems, the country can only be safe if similar efforts are made by neighbouring countries.

The bird flu threat for Uganda remains real. In 2016, Cameroon announced detection of the H5N1 virus strain for the first time since 2006, the same year that more than 3.5m poultry were killed in Nigeria to avert spread of the flu.

In January 2017, Nigeria reported the first H5N8 strain, currently causing problems in Europe. Egypt, a neighbour to Tunisia and Morocco, where the white-winged black terns migrate from during their breeding season, reported 292 cases of human H5N1 infection, 34% of them fatal, between 2006 and 2015.

The time has come for sub Saharan African countries not only to harmonise their bird flu control and management systems, but also to collaborate in research and testing and the establishment of facilities to improve early detection and management of the disease.

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