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on June 30, 2009

Web Exclusive: Gulf countries to bar avian flu

There are growing fears within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the persistence of the highly pathogenic strain of the avian influenza (AI) virus, H5N1, among poultry flocks in the region.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was a prime mover in setting up GCC in 1981. Other member countries are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

H5N1 is entrenched in southern Kuwait around Al-Wafrah and has destroyed 75 percent of the emirate’s egg laying capacity. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is sparing no effort to keep the virus out of its poultry industry.

H5N1 was isolated in birds at a private house in the eastern Saudi province of Ash-Sharqiyah (Al-Katief district) on 12 March 2007. Infected species were parrots, peacocks, ostriches and turkeys.  One hundred and six birds died, the remaining 564 were culled and the premises disinfected. Previous reported case involved 37 falcons in 2006 but so far, the poultry industry has been spared.

Details of the government’s contingency plans to prevent the entry and spread of H5N1 in the Kingdom were revealed during a Symposium entitled ‘Bird Flu - between reality and truth’ and organised jointly by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, the Poultry Producers Association and Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“Saudi Arabia” is considered to have one of the most developed poultry industries in the world” said Tarik Taher, President and CEO of the Radwa Company for Food Production. “The industry complies with all the criteria of sterilisation and the most important step in prevention of any viral, bacterial or fungal infection is strict biosecurity systems”, he added.

Imports of all birds, eggs and feed from countries with reported AI outbreaks were banned, and people arriving from infected countries prevented from dealing with poultry for a minimum of 10 days. Systems are in place to ensure wild birds cannot enter poultry houses and feed stores, and that poultry farms do not rear different types of birds at the same location.

Government and industry clearly see strict biosecurity as the difference between success and failure. “Biosecurity might be costly” said Mr Taher, pointing out how his company has implemented a strict system of biosecurity over a 25-year period. “It is a long term investment to save the poultry industry in the Kingdom by keeping birds healthy and safe rather than paying even higher costs when they get infected”.

Biosecurity-based contingency plans in Saudi Arabia require poultry farms to be isolated from residential areas and maintained at least 3km away from other farms. Vehicles are required to drive through shallow baths of disinfectant before they enter poultry farms. Personnel are not allowed on to poultry farms unless absolutely necessary and designated workers must wear proper protective clothing including footwear and face masks to prevent any occurrence of human infection. Speakers at the symposium urged consumers to buy only poultry products that had been approved by HACCP certification.

The upsurge of H5N1 has reverberated right around the region, causing other GCC members to experience problems and take strong action. UAE closed its border to poultry imports from both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in March and all local markets selling live chickens are shut down.

Outbreaks of H5N1 normally depress the price of poultry meat and eggs but fresh chicken prices in Qatar have actually risen since an import ban was imposed on chicken and other poultry products from Saudi Arabia by the national health authority. Government said it has no plans to close down live chicken outlets as a precautionary measure against an outbreak of bird flu.

Dealers and retailers in Qatar do not anticipate any major shortage and price rise because many other sources, including locally produced poultry, are available. All brands of frozen chicken have risen by US$100-200 per tonne but chicken is still the cheapest meat following recent massive price hikes in mutton and beef.

Bahrain is clearly worried and has banned the entry of birds through King Fahd Causeway and the airport by tightening customs checks on incoming cars and passengers. Local poultry supplies 80 percent of Bahrain’s consumption, most of the remainder traditionally coming from neighbouring countries with recorded AI outbreaks. The industry and commerce ministry has urged food importers to build up stocks of poultry to avoid creation of monopolies, scarcities and rocketing prices.

Government statements have repeatedly emphasised that Bahrain is AI-free.

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