UN helps fight new outbreak of fatal Rift Valley Fever in Kenya

5 January 2007 – United Nations agencies are helping to draw up an action plan to fight a new outbreak of Rift Valley Fever (RVF) in Kenya amid concerns that climate change with successive droughts and floods, some of it human-caused, could increase the 5-15 year cyclical frequency of the sometimes fatal viral haemorrhagic disease.

“The outbreak of Rift Valley fever is just another example that requires a quick and coordinated answer,” the Manager of the new Crisis Management Centre (CMC) launched by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last October, Karin Schwabenbauer, said of the current outbreak in Kenya.

“I am glad that CMC was able to assist the team in the region in setting up the appropriate activities from the beginning of the outbreak,” she added of the battle against the mosquito-borne virus that primarily affects ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, camels, goats, but can cause outbreaks in humans as well.

Since the latest outbreak began there in November, 47 deaths have been reported in the flood-affected areas of Garissa, capital of Kenya’s North Eastern province. The Kenyan Ministry of Health, with international aid, is distributing mosquito nets and taking steps to reduce animal-to-human transmission through animal husbandry and slaughter.

People become infected either by being bitten by mosquitoes or through contact with the blood, other body fluids or organs of infected animals. Such contact may occur during the care or slaughtering of infected animals or possibly from the ingestion of raw milk. Wind can sometimes help carry the virus-bearing insects long distances.

RVF can cause serious economic losses in livestock, particularly sheep and cattle, although goats, camels, Asian water buffaloes and wild antelopes may also be susceptible. Outbreaks often follow major flooding, since heavy rains trigger a kind of wake-up call for the mosquitoes that carry the disease.

Since 1998, when flood-related RVF flared up in the Horn of Africa and encroached into the Arabian Peninsula, FAO has been working to demarcate the areas in sub-Saharan Africa at greatest risk and pinpoint hot spots across East and West Africa to forecast where the next outbreaks will occur and put adequate response strategies in place.

Though RVF has historically occurred in 5-15 year cycles, climatic changes, including a succession of droughts and floods or human modifications of ecosystems, could change these intervals in the future, FAO said.

Together with officials from the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and various international aid agencies present in the area, the FAO team is helping draw up preparedness, communication, surveillance and response activities.

The CMC was set up in collaboration with the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to bring rapid-response capacity to trans-boundary animal and plant diseases amid growing concern at the rapid spread of bird flu.

Supported by advanced communications technology and operating with a staff of up to 15 specialists and veterinarians who continuously monitor and update disease information from around the globe, the CMC can dispatch its experts to any hotspot in the world in under 48 hours of a suspected outbreak.

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