Measures aim to protect Winter Olympics visitors from avian flu

As the 2018 Winter Olympic Games open in South Korea, the government is introducing a raft of new measures to control the spread of avian influenza, which first hit the country’s poultry sector in November 2017.

byvalet, Bigstock
byvalet, Bigstock

As the 2018 Winter Olympic Games open in South Korea, the government is introducing a raft of new measures to control the spread of avian influenza, which first hit the country’s poultry sector in November 2017.

The Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, have been generating much interest across the world from competitors, visitors, and millions of “armchair sportspeople” who will watch the action on TV.

While no particular health risks to visitors have been flagged up by officials, advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the host nation warn of increased risks of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections at this time of year.

As well as an increase in seasonal influenza, the WHO health advisory refers to a number of recent outbreaks of avian influenza A(H5N6) in poultry and other birds, which started in November of 2017. No human cases of flu linked to this virus have been detected since that time, and the risk of human infection is described as “very low.”

South Korean officials have been taking action to minimize the risk of visitors to the Games becoming ill from the H5N6 virus, which is highly pathogenic to poultry and other birds, reported Yonhap in early January.

At that time, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced stronger quarantine measures as outbreaks began to occur nearer to the capital city, Seoul, and to Gangwon province, where PyeongChang is located. Those measures included an immediate 48-hour ban on the movement of poultry in the area of new outbreaks and into Gangwon, preemptive culling of poultry at neighboring farms, and increased surveillance at duck farms in the region where most cases had been detected.

By the end of January, there had been 16 confirmed outbreaks of H5N6 HPAI in South Korean poultry flocks, and 1.78 million birds had been culled to curb the spread of the disease, according to the news agency.

The agriculture ministry then announced further measures to strengthen the hygiene at poultry farms, including the merger of small poultry farms so that there is a minimum of 500 meters between production units. New poultry farms will in future have to be sited at least three kilometers from areas used by migratory birds in winter.

More than 5,600 poultry farms are to be fitted with cameras so biosecurity measures can be remotely monitored, according to Yonhap, and meat retailers will be required to register so the poultry meat supply chain can be more closely monitored. Trade in live chickens and ducks at traditional markets will be banned by 2022.

In a related move, South Korea’s laying hens are to have their space allowance increased by 50 percent to 0.075 square meters (116.25 square inches). This new rule will apply from July 2018 for new poultry houses, and from 2025 for existing facilities.

Furthermore, a tracking system will be adopted from breeding to sale for chickens, ducks, and eggs so give consumers—and regulators—complete information about the whole supply chain, reported Yonhap last week. The same system will assist tracing disease outbreaks and contamination with harmful substances. The pilot program will start in November, and the agriculture ministry is expecting full implementation by December 2019.

Korea’s health authority has confirmed 21 cases of norovirus at the Winter Olympic venues, reports Outbreak News Today. The patients are undergoing treatment and are expected to make a quick recovery. The most common source of norovirus is infected people, directly or indirectly from items they have contaminated by touch. Live poultry and meat are not thought to be sources of direct norovirus infection in humans.

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