From biosecurity labs to 3D animations, increased capacity and communication improve response to outbreaks
When avian influenza – known informally as avian or bird flu – struck Egypt in 2006, it led to significant economic losses, impacting birds and people alike.
The highly infectious disease in some forms can lead to mass death in domesticated and wild bird species, including chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and quails. It can also spill over to people through direct or indirect contact with infected birds and cause severe illness or death.
Efforts to curb the spread of avian flu were vigorous, including mass poultry vaccinations and the culling of over 40 million birds. Yet, over 350 human infections were reported, and about 120 people died between 2006 and 2017.
The disease also took its toll on poultry production. Raising and selling poultry is the main source of income for most Egyptian small-scale farmers and can account for up to 30 percent of their earnings. So, losing their animals is like losing their life savings.
To support efforts to fight avian flu, FAO set up an Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) unit in Egypt in 2007. Its aim? Work with the Government of Egypt to tackle transboundary animal diseases, including zoonotic diseases (those that can spread between animals and humans) by improving prevention, early detection and response through adopting a One Health approach.
One Health recognizes that the health of animals, people, plants and the environment are interconnected, and health threats such as avian flu need to be addressed holistically, with experts from multiple sectors working together.
What happened next and over the last decade and a half, involved establishing 230 epidemiological units across the country; training nearly 15 000 veterinary personnel in many aspects of disease outbreak management; setting up or strengthening national laboratories and much more.
For example, FAO has supported the Government to design and implement an avian flu surveillance programme to deepen understanding of the epidemiology of the disease.
The programme enabled the veterinary authority to detect early and respond rapidly to several emerging or re-emerging avian flu virus strains. In addition, the Animal Health Research Institute -the national veterinary laboratory – has recently been accredited by the World Organisation for Animal Health as an international reference laboratory for avian influenza.
To reduce the risk of avian flu entering and spreading across poultry farms and exposing humans to the virus, FAO and partners progressively improved biosecurity measures on farms, training over 600 field-based veterinarians, 260 animal health service providers, more than 100 vaccination crews and over 1 000 poultry farm producers.
Trainings included conveying safe husbandry and slaughter practices that reached farmers and other groups in more than 800 villages. The sensitisation events in health, agricultural, youth and religious centres, schools and veterinary clinics helped communities better understand the importance of these practices and contributed to curbing the spread of avian flu and its spilling over to humans.
To sum it up, with financial support from partners, including the United States Agency for International Development, Sweden, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Spain and the European Union, FAO ECTAD and Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation have rolled out life-saving activities, for both animals and humans, with a total budget of USD 24 million since 2007.
Avian flu is still endemic in Egypt, but these efforts have paid off. The incidence and spread of avian flu in the poultry populations have been significantly reduced; the animal health sector’s capacity is stronger, and no human has been found infected with the virus since 2017.
But, cautions Nasredin Hagelamin, FAO Representative in Egypt, “efforts should be maintained in order to sustain the gains made and eventually stamp out avian flu in the country”.
The social media effect
Stopping avian flu is only possible if poultry breeders – small-scale farmers and commercial producers alike – understand how to prevent its introduction and spread.
This is why, FAO and the Government have been working with poultry farmers, spreading messages on the need to only purchase poultry from known sources and practice safe husbandry and slaughter practices.
To hone and easily share these message, FAO and partners developed a 3D animated video on good husbandry practices and biosecurity measures – reaching nearly 3 million views in Egypt in one month on Facebook.
They also worked with the Government so that breeders whose birds had been culled received financial compensation.
“Together, over 14 years of collaboration, we have overcome many challenges to enhance the capacity of veterinary services and sustainably control influenza and other transboundary animal diseases – with the ultimate goal of improving public health, food security and the livelihoods of vulnerable people,” concludes Abdelhakim Ali, Chairman of the General Organization for Veterinary Services and the Chief Veterinary Officer in Egypt.
In Egypt and now 26 other countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, FAO’s ECTAD is continuing to roll out vital animal health and emergency activities.