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on June 30, 2009

Web Exclusive: H5N1 ‘all clear’ called too soon

A classic case of over-confidence and under-estimation of the virus has occurred in Bangladesh.

There is increasing tendency for affected countries to perceive early H5N1 containment and call the ‘all clear’ much too soon. H5N1 – the highly pathogenic strain of the avian influenza (HPAI) virus – was first identified at Savar near the capital Dhaka on 23 March and spread across the country at speed over the next three weeks. Dhaka, Khulna, Rajshahi and Chittagong divisions all recorded outbreaks, meaning the disease had spread in all directions and was very close to the border with India at many points.

There were reports of new outbreaks until 11 April. Just four days later, C.S. Karim, adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock told reporters, “The disease is under control now after culling 79,000 birds”.

A senior ministry official, Khalipur Rahman Siddiqui said, “Had it not been controlled, the virus would have infected all the districts like a wildfire”.

Government announced plans to pay 70 taka (US$1) for every chicken affected (died or culled) since detection of the disease on 23 March, saying that the money would be released soon to bring affected farmers back into the industry.

The Samannoi Committee formed by the poultry industry said that hatchery owners would provide day-old chicks free of charge to affected farmers, while feed companies would provide feed for one month for the birds. Commercial banks which have provided loans to affected farmers would ease the repayment conditions with further credit provision to poultry growers in affected districts said the ministry.

Bangladesh has banned the import of parent birds and day-old chicks from 62 countries that have been affected by HPAI. The ministry said that only 32 out of 300,000 poultry farms in Bangladesh had reported the disease, clearly confident that it had been contained.

But confidence was clearly misplaced because within five days, the disease was re-appearing on farms at Jessore district (Khulna division) close to the border with West Bengal in India and at Savar near Dhaka where the disease was first detected on 23 March.

The premature ‘all-clear’ was made following reports that a 10-man team from UN’s FAO had just arrived in Bangladesh to investigate the outbreak and recommend measures to combat it. The team will visit all affected farms and laboratories and interview farmers and government specialists over the next two weeks.

Ad Spigkers, the FAO representative in Bangkok, told Reuters that the mission is to make an assessment and come up with solid recommendations on what are the best ways to contain it and get it stamped out so it will not spread further. “The government is wondering how and why it came here. We are trying to get our finger on it. There is a lot of work to be done. Every country has its special conditions and Bangladesh is a densely populated country with many chickens and many ducks”, said Spigkers.

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