The recent outbreak of H5N1 highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (HPAI) in Saudi Arabia has resulted in a cull of almost 4 million birds. It is viewed with a mixture of dismay and fear in the Kingdom’s much smaller and less well equipped southern neighbour. Yemen adjoins Saudi Arabia at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. One of the poorest countries in the Arab World, Yemen is fearful that it will not be able to cope if faced with an outbreak.

According to reports by IRIN and Reuters, the General Department for Animal Resources (GDAR) at Yemen's Ministry of Agriculture says that it is worried about the potential for an outbreak of avian flu and has simultaneously warned that its resources and capacity to deal with the disease are very limited.

Yemen has already banned imports of all poultry products from Saudi Arabia, traditional supplier of around 60% of its poultrymeat and eggs, says Ghaleb al-Eryani, director-general of GDAR.

There are fears that the virus is already spreading through Yemen’s poultry flocks. Mr Al-Eryani told IRIN his department had already received several reports to this effect from citizens and farmers over the past few days. “A local citizen reported to us that 8000 chickens had died on his poultry farm, which had 10,000 chickens. Despite limited resources, we took samples for laboratory tests,” said Mr Al-Eryani.

Previous cessation of all avian flu surveillance due to lack of resources is the most immediate and serious problem for Yemen. Over the past seven months, the surveillance team and operation room responsible for bird flu surveillance have stopped working because of financial problems. The Ministry of Finance has not paid the budget for the surveillance work, for which the cabinet had assigned 50 million Yemen rials (US$250,000). “The budget is meant for bird flu surveillance in Yemen's governorates,” said Mr Al-Eryani. He claimed the reason for surveillance teams in the governorates not working was because they had not been paid and had lost trust in his department, according to reports by IRIN and Reuters. 


Yemen recently received a US$1 donation from the World Bank to help it prepare for any possible outbreak of avian flu. “An expert from the Bank visited us on 9-16 November and was not happy when he learnt that the [avian flu] surveillance programme had been halted due to financial problems. The Bank threatened to withdraw the donation if the problem was not solved,” explained Mr Al-Eryani.

GDAR officials claim Yemen – especially along its coastal area – is a crossing point for migratory birds on the main ‘fly way’ between Europe/Western Asia and Africa (and vice versa). They claim that there is a high risk of winter avian flu outbreaks because migratory birds are passing through Yemen on their way to warmer climes in Africa.

Mr Al-Eryani warned that the private sector would be seriously affected by any outbreak. “Some 600,000 families that depend on poultry for their livelihood will face big losses.” He claimed Yemen’s traditional internal trade in live birds poses a real threat that could affect millions of people. “They [the people of Yemen] move poultry from farms to markets and from one governorate to another while they are still alive. Then they distribute them to shops in neighbourhoods, where they are sold live,” he said.