WHO stresses need to keep bird flu out of tsunami relief food

14 January 2005 – With a fourth new human case of potentially deadly bird flu confirmed in Viet Nam, the United Nations health agency has called for ensuring that infected poultry is kept out of the food chain, including emergency food relief supplies for the region devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

There is no inherent increased risk of the emergence of a human pandemic strain due to the tsunami itself, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, since the areas with the highest prevalence of bird flu were not directly affected by the disaster.

“However, any activity that spreads avian influenza increases the possibility of the emergence of a pandemic virus,” it added. “The risk of importing avian influenza into areas affected by the tsunami can be minimized by controlling the movement of poultry from areas where outbreaks of avian influenza have occurred.

“It is also important to ensure that infected poultry are kept out of the food chain, including emergency food relief activities,” it stressed.

WHO has warned several times over the past year of the potential evolution of the virus into a human pandemic which, in the worst scenario, could have a devastatingly deadly result.

After the most recent outbreak in Viet Nam, which killed three of the four infected, it warned that cooler winter temperatures and increased poultry marketing, transportation, and consumption associated with the Lunar New Year in February could exacerbate the risk of further human cases.

Before the new cases, the same H5 virus subtype infected 45 people in Asia over the past year, 32 of them fatally, and resulted in the deaths or culling of more than 100 million birds.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said there has been no evidence that fish- and seafood-borne illnesses have increased in the countries hit by last month’s tsunami.

The agency reported that rumours criss-crossing southern Asia suggested it was unsafe to eat fish that have been in proximity to or have fed on the bodies of the tsunami victims, resulting in a drop in fish consumption.

FAO stressed that such fears were unfounded. “In light of the information available, there is no evidence, epidemiological or of any other nature, of an increased risk of fish- and seafood-borne illnesses in the affected regions,” it said.

The agency warned instead that damaged wastewater and sanitation systems might leak into fishing grounds or aquaculture ponds, leading to viral, bacterial and parasitic intestinal infections.

FAO said that eating only healthy-looking, properly cleaned and fully cooked fish would minimize risks. “The best advice is to avoid eating any fish or seafood with visible signs of spoilage, and most importantly to ensure that fish is eviscerated and well cooked before consumption,” it said.

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