On 19 May, the United Nations Information Office in Cairo held a media briefing on the pressing threat of Avian flu in Egypt and the world.
The briefing was attended by Dr Henrik Bekedam, WHO representative in Egypt, and Mr Yilma Makonnen, team leader in the Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) and a representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
H5N1 was first reported in Hong Kong in 1997. It then spread in 2003 and 2004 from Asia to countries all over the world. It infected hundreds and killed many, in addition to the destruction of millions of poultry.
The main risk factor was exposure to live or dead infected birds, but consuming well cooked poultry products was not a factor.
Symptoms included influenza accompanied by a very high fever. In some cases symptoms included chest pain, diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding from the nose and gums.
Dr Bekedam said that although MERS is at the centre of public attention worldwide, Avian flu H5N1 still poses a great danger.
"Since Avian flu emerged, it has infected around 660 people worldwide, killing 175," he said. "What comes to attention is that 26 percent of cases came from Egypt, which says a lot about the situation in the country and the need to put all efforts into raising awareness among people, establishing the right means of diagnosis and treatment, and creating a new strategy to deal with further outbreaks."
Bekedam told Ahram Online that the risk was still there, and that is why the UN has put a lot of effort into conveying information and giving training to entities related to diagnosis and treatment. “Countries can only be prepared if they have the right information regarding transboundary diseases.”
He stressed that cooperation between different entities is important when it comes to animals, which are the source of seven percent of the viruses that emerge every year.
He further highlighted that the way people handle poultry is the key factor.
”When the problem broke out in China, it was notable that if we compare the ratio of domestic birds to citizens there and the one in a country like the Netherlands, it was almost the same (1:10). Nevertheless the problem was magnified in China because 60 to 70 percent of the poultry there was kept in the backyard, so the difference was actually the way of handling animals.”
Makonnen further explained that this is a similar situation in Egypt, where birds cannot be described as "present in the back yard, but rather inside the houses and places of living."
“They are a part of the food chain, and of the income of the people, with 7.5 percent of Egyptians dependant on them as a main source of income, the poultry sector in Egypt is highly developed and deeply intertwined in the society," he said.
The WHO concentrates on addressing the risk from animal viruses through collaborating with the Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the FAO all over the world. They monitor the situation, convey information, and provide technical help for diagnosis and treatment. In short, the WHO is monitoring the situation as it evolves, and as more information becomes available, will revise its guidance and actions accordingly.
The panel emphasised that regulations that deal with breeding poultry domestically are usually in major cities rather than rural areas, so new strategies have to be implemented that take into consideration the intricate situation of poultry in Egypt, and the fact that many workers in that field are actually working for other owners, and that is why they do not put implementing the right hygiene and safety standards into action.