The outbreak of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) in Saudi Arabia is rapidly moving from serious to desperate, with a continuing series of poultry culls. It started as a single infection on one farm south of Riyadh over two weeks ago with the loss of 50,000 birds and has since rapidly progressed into a cull approaching four million and rising.

According to Arab News (22 November 2007), 3.2 million birds across 10 farms were subsequently culled in what partly appears to be a ‘slaughter as a precaution’ policy to prevent further spread of H5N1 HPAI. Agricultural minister, Fahd Balghunaim, told a Saudi TV station, “Birds in seven farms in Riyadh province where the virus was detected were culled. The chickens in another three farms were also culled because the farms were situated hazardously close to the farms where the virus appeared first.” 

The minister assured farmers that they will be adequately compensated by the agriculture ministry, in line with the directives issued by the council of ministers. Infected poultry are being incinerated along with feed and other poultry materials remaining on infected farms, while buildings and equipment are now being cleaned and disinfected. These and other remedial actions are being taken by the ministry through a national committee, in co-operation with the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

The minister went on to lay blame with infected migratory birds, saying that the Kingdom is on the ‘fly way’ of millions of birds that migrate from Central Asia and Eastern Europe and into Africa to escape harsh winter conditions. “We have even restricted the import of all kinds of birds, including canaries and lovebirds, and a strict ban on the hunting of birds is currently in force,” said the minister. Falcons will be allowed in to the Kingdom after passing through quarantine.

Mr Fahd Balghunaim warned consumers not to purchase live birds or poultrymeat unless it is of known and safe origin. He confirmed that the bird market in Riyadh was closed because it had failed to meet proper hygiene standards.

“Birds have been culled on farms in the Al-Kharj, Dhurma, Muzamiyah governorates and Al Hayati all in Riyadh province and Al Aziziyah poultry market in Riyadh as a preventive measure”, said Mohammed Zaid Al-Julaifi, director-general of Animal Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture. He went on to explain that poultry in a 5km radius of any infected farm had been destroyed.

Less than one week later, Saudi Arabia's Agriculture Ministry reported two more outbreaks, this time at layer farms in the Al Kharj and Thadiq governorates in Riyadh province. All birds were culled and production facilities cleaned before being closed down. According to SPA news agency and Associated Free Press, these latest outbreaks involve 216,000 more birds. This brings the total culled over 14 outbreaks since 12 November 2007 to almost four million.

Though clearly serious and causing huge losses, outbreaks appear confined to Riyadh province. Saudi Arabia is a large country majority of which, like Asir region in the south-west with its short common border with Yemen, appears unaffected by H5N1. Mubarak Al-Mutlaga, general manager of the Agricultural Department in Asir, said that the region does not have a bird flu problem thanks to preventive measures in place. He added that authorities had taken steps to prevent chickens from arriving in the region through Alab, a border pass between the Kingdom and Yemen.

“Crops and fodder are also prevented from entering unless they undergo thorough checking,” said Mr Al-Mutlaga. The department is also checking up on 160 poultry businesses in Asir. Workers are only allowed to come into contact with birds if they are wearing sterilised clothes, and captured migratory birds are kept separate from domestic livestock. “Water and food are never left uncovered to ensure there is no contamination,” he said.

Riyadh province and the municipality of Riyadh itself are clearly a big problem for Saudi Arabia, with attempts to smuggle at least six truckloads of live birds into the capital. The municipality has declared the city off-limits to vehicles carrying live birds, while ministries of agriculture and health intensified efforts to check the spread of the disease.

“Our inspection teams have impounded trucks loaded with chickens which were subsequently culled,” said Soliman Hmad Al-Buthi, head of Riyadh’s environmental health department. He called on the public to report cases of unlicensed shops operating under unhygienic conditions and claimed all efforts were being made to keep Riyadh safe.

Mr Al-Julaifi denied rumours that human infections had already occurred, but said the national committee has intensified efforts to ensure farm workers are properly protected from the virus. Poultry workers from infected farms have been tested and found negative for avian flu. Export of poultry from Saudi Arabia has been suspended, said Mr Al-Julaifi, but he hoped the situation would ease in coming months. The minister advised the Saudi population to avoid any direct contact with live birds, and to cook all poultry meat and eggs properly before eating to avoid infection.

There are more than 340 licensed poultry farms across the Kingdom producing around 480 million birds each year. Total investment in poultry is estimated to exceed 40 billion Saudi riyals (US$10.7 billion). Arab News says this avian flu outbreak is sending shockwaves through the poultry industry. Many retail outlets have reported declines in sales and some have frozen their chicken to avoid big losses, claimed the report.