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Avian Influenza
on June 30, 2009

Fast forward by Malaysia on H5N1

There were outbreaks in August 2004 eight months after “everyone else” and again in February and March 2006, all dealt with swiftly and efficiently.

You have to hand it to the Malaysian authorities when it comes to dealing with H5N1 HPAI. In the space of two weeks they announce an outbreak in poultry, stamp on the infection, hospitalise people all over the country with flu like symptoms as a precaution then declare the country bird flu free.

Compared with ASEAN neighbours Indonesia. Thailand and Vietnam, Malaysia has hardly suffered from H5N1. There were outbreaks in August 2004 eight months after “everyone else” and again in February and March 2006, all dealt with swiftly and efficiently.

This latest outbreak was found on 2 June 2007 in village poultry at Sungai Buloh in the state of Selangor (peninsular Malaysia), where 67 chickens died over three days. Authorities acted quickly with Dr Kamaruddin Mohamed Isa, head of disease control for Malaysia’s veterinary services department, telling Reuters that birds were culled in a 1 km radius of the outbreak, with a further 10 km radius area subject to road blocks, strict surveillance and quarantine.

Index flock was at Kampung (Kg) Paya Jaras Hilir but neighbouring villages Kg Paya Jaras Hulu, Kg Jaras Dalam and Kg Kubu Gajah were also affected. Dr Abdul Aziz Jamaluddin director-general of Veterinary Services Department said some 3200 chickens were culled in less than one week.

First reports from Kg Paya Jaras Hilir were received on June 2 at the Petaling veterinary office in Shah Alam. Outbreak site was visited on June 3 by veterinary officers and samples taken for testing at the Petaling Jaya veterinary laboratory. Preliminary positive tests for H5N1 were confirmed at the Veterinary Research Institute in Ipoh on June 5.

What followed was a major red-alert with five residents from the outbreak village (aged 11 months to 35 years) hospitalised for observation and 17 others confined to their homes following development of flu like symptoms.  Concern grew when two others from Selangor plus two each from the northern state of Kedah and the central state of Malacca were subsequently hospitalised for observation following onset of flu like symptoms and unexplained sudden deaths in local poultry.

Malaysia was clearly playing safe (and sensibly so), because within several days 10 of the first 11 suspected cases proved negative. Health Minister Dr Chua Soi Lek told Reuters their condition had not met the “definition of avian influenza”. That said all patients were from poultry affected areas or other suspect areas and Malaysia was clearly being extra vigilant.

The whole experience clearly added to concern throughout the region and beyond, especially since it coincided with claims (subsequently discounted by the WHO) from Indonesia and Vietnam that the virus had changed to allow easier transmission to humans.

There is a history of efficient stamping out in Malaysia, so the effect of this outbreak on local poultry business and consumption was muted. “This is an isolated case and we will attempt to clear the affected areas of any sick birds within 36 hours” said Dr Zulkifli Idris, secretary general of Agricultural and Agro-based Industries Ministry, adding that the nearest commercial farm was 12 km away. Singapore suspended poultry imports from Selangor but continued to accept poultry from other states in Malaysia. In an extra ironic twist Indonesia slapped a complete ban on all Malaysian poultry and poultry products.

Malaysia was clearly “on the ball” for an attempt to smuggle 136 sparrows from the affected area on 6 June was stopped and the birds culled. More people were quarantined in hospitals after developing flu-like symptoms, including a 16 year old boy from Seberang Takir in Terengganu state after sudden death of chickens and ducks he was rearing, and a 31-year old man who worked at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre but lived within 300-400m of the poultry outbreak in Sungai Buloh.

Malaysia is always on the look out for infected wild birds and smuggled poultry, overseen by state veterinary services and FLFAM (Federation of Livestock Farmers’ Association of Malaysia). Fighting cocks smuggled in from Thailand is of constant concern. There is a ban and security is tight but most are smuggled via illegal jetties to avoid strict border checks.

Open-house poultry farms have bird netting says chairman of FLFAM’s broiler unit because we think migrating birds are one source of disease. Normal mortality rate for broilers in Malaysia is just 0.1% and farmers inform authorities at 1%. There are 5,000 broiler farms in Malaysia, 90% operating under the open-house system and 10% the enclosed house system.

Veterinary Services Department initially told “New Straits Times” that provided there were no new cases after 30 days the affected area will be declared bird flu free. In the end even this was not sufficiently fast, for on June 15 the Malaysian government claimed it was asking WHO to declare the country bird flu free by the end of June. Health Minister

Dr Chua Soi Lek claimed that with no new cases reported in the past two days his health ministry had stopped operations to detect and cull fowls in Kampung Paya Jaras Hilir where the virus was discovered on 2 June. "We will have to apply to the WHO to declare we are free of the H5N1virus. We can say that we are free but WHO has to be convinced", he said.

It would be highly unusual if WHO granted this status so quickly because South Korea only regained its bird flu free status in mid June 2007 based on last outbreak in early March 2007. Malaysian outbreaks in February and March last year were dealt with quickly but Malaysia was not declared H5N1 free until 22 June 2006.  

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