No-one should doubt global importance and international reach of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Within days of the UK outbreak on 12 November 2007 and just 6500 birds culled on one infected farm, well over 1000 items relating to the event had been posted on the worldwide web. Tucked away in the middle on ABC On Line Australia was the first report from Saudi Arabia where H5N1 had just infected a poultry farm causing the loss of 50,000 birds in one foul swoop. One thousand five hundred birds had died and the rest were culled on a farm in the Al Kharj region 150km south of Riyadh.

But this was far from the end for within hours of the announcement two more farms 80km to the west of the Saudi capital were hit with immediate loss of 90,000 chickens said Saudi Agriculture Minister, Fahd Balghnaim.

By 19 November 222,000 birds in Al-Kharj, Durma, Muzamiyah and Al-Hayati had been culled, according to a statement issued by Muhammad Al-Sheha, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture.

At the same time, a poultry market in the Aziziyah district of Riyadh was shut down after inspectors discovered four cases of AI during a random inspection. An emergency team comprising police, the municipality, ministries of health and agriculture and the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWD) was assigned to area and the market cordoned off according to Arab News. “There are 85 poultry shops in this market and each with a minimum of around 1000 birds each. The team plans to cull the birds and disinfect the whole area to stop the virus from spreading,” said Soliman Al-Buthi, general manager of the Environmental Health Department at the Riyadh Municipality.

Saudi Arabia experienced an outbreak earlier this year in March 2007 when HPAI was discovered in peacocks, turkeys and parrots at a house in the east of the Kingdom, but this is the first experience of outbreaks and losses on such a large scale.

Ongoing outbreaks in Saudi Arabia has put the entire Gulf region on high alert and none more so than neighbouring Kuwait, which knows first hand the damage caused by H5N1. In April 2007, the tiny country lost over 1.7 million chickens – mostly layers – in a series of outbreaks that virtually wiped out egg production in Kuwait and severely disrupted the market. Saudi authorities suspect that infection has been re-introduced into the country by migratory wild birds.