United Nations agencies moved on two fronts today to combat the threat of a bird flu pandemic, bringing forward the introduction of new public health provisions and providing wide-ranging guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus by people working closely with poultry such as farmers, sellers and even sporting bird owners.
The World Health Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), agreed to immediately start implementing parts of the International Health Regulations (IHR) relating to bird flu and a human pandemic, which were not scheduled to come into force until June next year.
The provisions include those relating to rapid and transparent notification, support to countries that request it in investigating and controlling outbreaks, and providing essential information including recommendations for control measures.
Although more than 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the virus or preventive culling, there have so far been only 218 human cases, 124 of them fatal, since the current H5N1 outbreak began in 2003. But experts fear it could mutate, passing from person to person and, in a worst case scenario, unleashing a deadly human pandemic.
On the animal side, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a list of guidelines ranging from advice that they should not borrow equipment from other properties to warnings to farmers that H5N1 can enter a property through infected droppings brought in from the outside by shoes, dirty cages and the wheels of bicycles or cars.
“We hope these messages can help overcome the obstacles by setting out some of the correct practices to avoid the spread of the disease among animals and thus reduce the risk of spread to humans,” FAO said in its introduction to the 10 pages of guidelines.
A section devoted to reducing the risk of animal-to-human infection warns that children are particularly vulnerable and should be kept away from poultry and not allowed to pick up feathers or eggs. The virus can be transmitted through contact with poultry, and their droppings, feathers, intestines and blood, according to the agency, which adds that contact with poultry and wild birds should be minimized.
The guidelines have sections devoted to various categories of people likely to come into contact with birds. Farmers are told to keep newly purchased poultry separate from existing flock for at least 2 weeks, traders are asked to respect bans on the movement of poultry, and animal health workers are warned to leave their means of transportation outside farms and to use protective clothing for culling or vaccination of poultry.
At the other end of the range, hunters are advised to take care when slaughtering wild birds by covering noses and mouths with a clean cloth or face mask while keeping contact with feathers, blood and intestines a minimum and washing hands and tools thoroughly.
And sporting bird owners for such pursuits as cock-fighting, falconry and pigeon racing are told to wash hands thoroughly after handling birds, cover noses and mouths when cleaning areas where birds are kept, and to ensure that children do not handle birds.
There is also some general advice that applies to all categories, such as not leaving dead animals lying around or throwing them into rivers, lakes or other bodies of water, and not eating or selling the carcasses of dead birds.