Several deaths caused by the so called bird flu, avian flu, and swine flu, or H1N1, have been reported in the past month.
Despite the alarming mutation of the two viruses to become transferable to humans proving less fatal than expected, Egypt’s economy and health continue to suffer.
According to the Egyptian ministry of health, there have been 114 cases of bird flu, mostly in rural areas north of Cairo. Although the ministry did not give an official estimate of the number of H1N1 cases, at least 8 have been reported yesterday in Gharbeia Governorate, in Egypt’s Nile Delta, in addition to the tens of cases that have been reported during the past month.
While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the alert level for avian flu (H5N1) at two and that for swine flu (H1N1) at five, it is the bird strain that affects Egypt more. The WHO maps detecting avian flu hotspots highlight parts of Egypt’s Nile Delta in red.
Amr Abbas, professor of infectious and tropical diseases at Suez Canal University and the secretary general of the African Clinical Epidemiology Network, explained that a problem faced by developing countries, including Egypt, is the case of “neglected diseases.” These diseases, according to Abbas, are those that affect relatively poor countries and as a result receive less spending and less research and are therefore left untreated.
“For example tuberculosis is a much widely spread disease but gets no international attention while HIV/AIDS gets a big share of public health campaigns because it threatens developed countries as much as it affects developing ones,” said Abbas.
While in most developed countries avian flu was never an alarming virus, in Egypt it has become endemic, meaning that it is continuously present to a greater or lesser degree in people. It remains a present danger that regularly affects people reaching its peak in the winter influenza season.
The WHO, on the other hand, only considers a disease alarming if it is pandemic, or has become an epidemic within a whole region, continent or the world. Since the H1N1 spreads faster than avian flu, the WHO deemed it to be more alarming while, in reality, it proved to be less life threatening.
Egypt’s health minister announced last week that the so called swine flu has become a seasonal virus and is no longer alarming to the country.
Avian flu, on the other hand, while not labelled by the WHO as a highly alarming virus, is threatening a huge sector of Egypt’s population, especially those in rural areas.
Egypt’s rural economy depends on poultry. It is also ingrained in rural culture to breed poultry at home with women involved more in the practice, rendering them vulnerable to the disease.
Although people’s lives are threatened daily, unhygienic poultry breeding continues due to economic necessities. The Egyptian government has frequently tried to ban home breading and announced last month the closure of all of Cairo’s chicken slaughterhouses. However, illegal unregulated breeding continues as the government offers no compensation or financial incentives to stop.
Poultry breeders as well as many rural homes fear that their fate would be similar to those of the pork industry.
After the WHO announced that the H1N1 virus was at alert level 5, the ministry of agriculture took the decision to slaughter all pigs in the country.
The decision did not only harm many of the pork breeders but also highly affected their parallel job of recycling organic waste by feeding it to the pigs. The decision, according to Hanan Roushdy from the Association of the Protection of the Environment, has not only affected the livelihood of many but also contributed to garbage accumulation after organic waste was left uncollected.
“Garbage collectors are now only taking the solid wastes and leaving the organic waste behind to accumulate in the streets since they can no longer feed it to the pigs. The private companies who have taken over garbage collection in some areas bury the waste instead of recycling it,” added Roushdy.
The government’s decision was also highly criticized by international bodies including the WHO and deemed “unnecessary” and “a real mistake” since the H1N1 virus is transmitted from human to human and not from pigs.
However, not only was the government’s reaction deemed by some as “unnecessary” but the WHO’s as well. The exaggerated level of alarm the WHO had given to the H1N1 virus provoked much criticism. Some have even gone as far as argue that a conspiracy orchestrated by drug companies was behind the WHO’s exaggerated reaction towards the new influenza strain.
Conspiracy or not, many argue that the WHO’s system of measuring alarms did not fit in Egypt’s case. Currently, the country is struggling with the endemic H5N1virus with economic needs and short budgets only making the problem worse, while international efforts are directed at controlling diseases that are not, for Egypt, a high priority.