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on June 30, 2009

Web Exclusive: H5N1 passing through Pakistan and Afghanistan

New evidence shows the H5N1 strain of bird flu is moving back and forth on migratory birds through central and west Asian nations.

H5N1 – the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (AI) – passed through a string of central and West Asian nations on its way to Europe and Africa in 2005/06. Countries like Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan all suffered outbreaks with some recording human cases and deaths.

‘Passing through’ is the right description because evidence suggests the virus is moving back and forth on migratory birds. Afghanistan and Pakistan are in invidious positions as ‘crossroad’ countries for avian migration with birds flying in and out in virtually all directions.

Outbreaks have not grabbed attention in the same way as for East Asia and Europe. H5N1 in turkeys in the United Kingdom (first week of February 2007) generated 2000 stories in newspapers and on-line publications around the world. Four outbreaks in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan at the same time generated no real interest outside affected countries.

Pakistan suffered H5N1 infection of a small domestic poultry flock in Rawalpindi in early February 2007 quickly followed by 20 peacocks testing positive in the Mansehra district of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Subsequent infection of domestic chickens in Islamabad was followed by infected peacocks at Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo.

Pakistan appears to have the situation well under control. H5N1 infected 28 poultry farms in March 2006 leaving 120,000 birds culled. Pakistani authorities are confident of quick control this time round too, with exclusion from commercial flocks.

Surveillance systems were set up in 2004 to monitor bird ‘flu outbreaks. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided new bird ‘flu detection equipment in 2006 allowing virus sub-type identification within 6 hours compared to 24-72 hours with the old technology.

Pakistan banned imports of poultry products from more than 30 countries with H5N1 in 2006. Its government told farmers to vaccinate poultry every 2-3 months and to maintain biosecurity, especially when introducing new birds into existing flocks. Pakistan sees migratory birds as the single most important route of H5N1 entry and spread. Hunting wild birds is banned to prevent unnecessary dispersal and spread. Trees within 3km of a poultry farm are felled to remove roosting and nesting sites of wild birds.

H5N1 returns at a ‘bad’ time for Pakistan’s poultry industry. Price rises caused by slow down in production during the winter season are aggravated by acute cold in the north of the country where 95 percent of commercial producers are based. Normally 400,000 birds are slaughtered daily in Karachi alone but this figure recently declined to 335,000 due to seasonal factors. The price of day-old chicks rose 8-fold within a few weeks.

Over 30,000 poultry farms supply 160 million people in Pakistan with almost half their total meat consumption. Peacocks are kept for cultural reasons to bring good luck to their owners.

Hard on the heels of the Marghazar Zoo outbreak were infections in two provinces in eastern Afghanistan, in Kunar (backyard poultry) and Nangarhar (turkeys). Each has a common border with Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas – not the easiest places to monitor and manage any outbreaks of H5N1. Afghanistan traditionally imports plenty of poultry from Pakistan, currently banned along with products from other affected countries including Russia, Turkey, United Kingdom and Indonesia.

H5N1 has now re-appeared in Afghanistan almost a year after the first outbreaks in March 2006, when the war-ravaged country reported infected poultry in Kabul and the provinces of Lowgar, Kapisa and Nangarhar – all adjacent or close to Pakistan.

Recent experience means Afghanistan and Pakistan now regard H5N1 as a  perennial but seasonal problem related to movements of migrating birds, threatening poultry flocks during winter and early spring when weakest. There is related concern in India’s western states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat sharing common borders with Pakistan.

Rajasthan is well known as a haven for migrating birds, receiving hundreds of thousands every winter. India is sensitive to smuggling from Pakistan but poultry is currently cheaper in India than Pakistan. Peacocks are poor fliers but could hop across fields and border fences and carry H5N1 into India. February 18 was ‘anniversary’ of India’s first outbreak of H5N1 in the neighbouring western state of Maharashtra.

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