Swiss experts lead fight against bird flu

Southeast Asian farmers often live in close proximity to their poultry and livestock Keystone

Switzerland has donated funds to help the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stop the spread of the deadly bird flu virus.

This content was published on October 14, 2005 - 17:24

Two Swiss experts are at the forefront of the FAO's efforts to stem the virus, which was confirmed on Thursday as having reached Turkey.

The Swiss government last month gave SFr4.8 million ($3.7 million) to the FAO to combat the spread of avian flu from Asia to Europe.

Asia has recorded at least 116 human cases and 65 deaths from the most dangerous variant, H5N1, since 2003, with infection occurring through contact with diseased birds.

Leading the Rome-based FAO's fight are Samuel Jutzi and Anton Rychener. Jutzi is the director of the animal production and health division and is responsible for coordinating the FAO's projects to contain a pandemic.

Rychener is the head of the FAO's office in Vietnam, the most highly infected country, which has reported 41 deaths from the virus so far.

Preventative measures

Poultry farming is carried out intensively in southeast Asia, especially in southern China, from where the virus is said to originate.

The Swiss funds are to go into a programme that was originally aimed at providing preventative measures for Asia.

"The FAO initially requested $100 million to help support the six infected countries in Asia," Jutzi told swissinfo.

"Now that the virus has practically reached Europe, the costs should rise to $150 million."

Jutzi says that the FAO's strategy is based on stopping the illness at its source. "We must assume that avian influenza will persist for many years in some of the countries that had disease outbreaks in 2004-2005," he told a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, earlier this year.

Rychener has been working for some time with the Vietnamese authorities and manufacturers on implementing an effective prevention policy.

This does not only concern birds – a ban on imports from affected countries has long been in place – but also humans. Experts fear the aggressive H5N1 virus could spread into the population and mutate into a variant transmitted by human-to-human contact.

They warn that the fact that half of those infected in Asia died from the disease makes it likely that a bird flu pandemic would be far more deadly than an normal flu epidemic.

No vaccine

At present there is no vaccine against the H5N1 virus. "We can reduce the risk of a human epidemic by undertaking prevention measures for animals," said Jutzi.

There does, however, exist an animal vaccine. "The FAO obtains it from China and the Netherlands," Rychener told swissinfo.

Meanwhile, UN specialists have warned that the only way to control the virus is to set aside traditional poultry- and animal-rearing methods in southeastern Asia.

It has already been observed that the virus is passed from birds to other animals, which was previously not the case for other strains of flu. Ducks were also found to be carriers, but to show no symptoms.

Millions of farmers in the region are thought to be raising poultry and livestock side-by-side in unsanitary conditions – normally close to their homes.

Added to this are traditional Asian poultry markets, where birds are traded live because there are no cooling facilities. This increases the risk of infection, says the FAO.

In Vietnam and many other Asian countries there are not enough diagnostic and inspection services. There are also too few epidemiological research laboratories.

Rychener says these areas need more financial support but adds that cooperation between authorities and scientists in the fight against the virus is excellent.

swissinfo, Alexander Künzle

Key facts

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is part of the United Nations.
There will be a bird flu meeting, sponsored by the World Health Organization, the FAO, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the World Bank, in Geneva from November 7-9.
The Swiss government has given SFr4.8 million ($3.7 million) to the FAO's efforts against bird flu.

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In brief

In Vietnam some 14 million households keep livestock and poultry.

People, birds and animals often live in close proximity.

Experts say the virus is more easily transmitted between species in these conditions.

The FAO says Asian farmers should separate different animal and bird species and protect themselves when they come into close contact.

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