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By Beth Njeri

The current outbreak of Avian Influenza (Avian Flu / Bird Flu in Uganda is the first confirmed outbreak in East Africa and it has so far been diagnosed from White winged black tern birds in Lutembe beach and domestic ducks & a hen from Masaka district.

Infection of poultry with LPAI viruses may cause no disease or mild illness (such as ruffled feathers, depression, droopiness, loss of appetite and a drop in egg production) and may go undetected while infection of poultry with HPAI viruses can cause severe disease (showing respiratory distress, blood-tinged discharge from nostrils, diarrhea, bluish discoloration of wattles & comb, incoordination, lack of the ability to stand and swelling of head, comb wattles and hock joint) with high mortality.

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In Humans LPAI virus infections have ranged from conjunctivitis to influenza-like illness (fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches) to lower respiratory disease (pneumonia) requiring hospitalization while HPAI virus infections have been associated with a wide range of illness from conjunctivitis only, influenza-like illness, severe respiratory illness (shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress and respiratory failure) with multi-organ disease, sometimes accompanied by nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and sometimes neurologic changes (altered mental status and seizures).

How can farmers differentiate whether their birds have been affected by the virus or other poultry diseases such as Newcastle?

The signs and symptoms listed above for poultry infected with the Avian Influenza virus are not specific to the Avian Influenza and can be confused with several common poultry diseases. Hence it is practically impossible for anyone to differentiate birds infected by Avian Influenza from the other poultry diseases by looking at the birds or inspecting the flock.

It is there for critical and important that the farmer should consult a qualified veterinary practitioner to make the diagnosis. To confirm the diagnosis the veterinary practitioner will need to send samples to a veterinary laboratory for virus isolation and identification.

What precautions should farmers take in the height of the outbreak?

Following the first ever confirmed outbreak of HPAI in the east Africa region in Uganda it is important that people do not panic but remain calm and listen to the advice being provided by the various government agencies and the poultry industry.

Uganda and Kenyan governments have set in place contingency plans to manage to contain the disease where it has been recorded and stem any spread to the human population.

To assist in this efforts the onus is on all people should report any cases of mass deaths in both domestic and wild birds to the nearest veterinary offices and to desist from touching, handling or eating any domestic or wild birds found dead.

For poultry farmers especially those keeping back yard poultry such birds should be housed immediately to avoid or reduce and interaction between the domestic and wild birds to minimize the spread of the disease from the wild birds to domestic poultry.

Commercial poultry farmers should ensure that their poultry units are rodent and bird proofed by using the appropriate wire mesh and closing the doors to the poultry units to keep out the wild birds.

They should also improve on their level of biosecurity, hygiene and sanitation to further minimize chances of contamination from secretions and/or feaces from wild birds – such measures should include but not be limited to having proper feed and litter storage facilities, proper clean out and disinfection of poultry houses, proper disposal of dead birds, observing high standards of personal hygiene by the poultry workers and instituting vigorous flock health management systems in consultation with the local veterinary personnel.

For consumers it is important that we are sure that the poultry meat and eggs that we are consuming are from reputable sources with high standards of hygiene and sanitation. Chicken should be slaughtered humanely and hygienically in approved slaughter places managed by authorized meat inspectors and public health officials. The meat must be inspected and confirmed fit for human consumption by the relevant veterinary and public health authorities. Finally we should ensure that our chicken meat or eggs are well cooked as proper cooking actually kills the virus hence limiting the spread of the disease.

How is the outbreak likely to affect the country’s poultry industry?

The impact of the current outbreak of HPAI in Uganda will depend on how the situation is handled by key players within the industry itself. If adequate information is provided to the general public to enable them have confidence in the production system by clearly articulating what is being done by the relevant government agencies in collaboration with the industry to ensure that the poultry product that gets to the table is safe then there should be minimal impact on the industry.

However, provisions within the individual country action plans will ultimately have an impact on the performance of their individual poultry industries for instance Kenya and Rwanda following the recognized international practice have banned importation of poultry products (chicks, meat and eggs) from Uganda. This is a move to prevent the disease from spreading to the two countries.

The immediate impact within the industry in Kenya and Rwanda is a short fall of the poultry products that they have been importing from Uganda which will lead to an increase in prices of the commodities (today’s Daily Nation reported an increase in egg prices) as the poultry industries of the two countries cannot cover the deficit immediately. Meanwhile in Uganda the industry will incur losses as there will be no market to sell the surplus to.

However if the situation is mismanaged and information going to the consumer does not build confidence in the production system then there is very high likelihood of the industry facing heavy losses as consumers will reduce their consumption of poultry products leading to wastage of the produce. In the worst case scenario if the disease spreads into Kenya then the poultry industry would be facing massive losses resulting from massive deaths of the chickens. To limit the spread of the disease poultry farms within the affected areas would still have to be depopulated, cleaned, disinfected and kept idle for 2-3 months before restocking which would lead to further losses to the producers. These would then have a negative impact on the other enterprises which depend on the industry to thrive such as the animal feeds industry, veterinary pharmaceuticals and fast food restaurants.

For these very reasons it is therefore critical that all relevant sectors work together to ensure that the current outbreak in Uganda is managed without causing any undue panic which can affect the local poultry industry while ensuring that the disease does not spread beyond its current foci in Uganda.

The writer works with World Animal Protection, Nairobi Kenya


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