Pace of Bird Flu Spread Accelerating

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus has affected more countries in the month of February than in any similar period in the more than two-year-old epidemic.

The lethal H5N1 virus was detected in February in 13 new countries on three continents.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists the nations in the order of their reports of bird flu: Iraq, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Iran, Austria, Germany, Egypt, India and France.

Wild dead birds also have been found in Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia and Bosnia in recent days. Tests are under way to determine if H5N1 caused the deaths of animals in those nations.

A February 21 WHO assessment of the recent spread notes significant differences in the way the disease is appearing in the various countries.

In some places, the virus has shown itself in the corpses of wild dead birds found in rural waters. In other places, it has appeared in domestic or backyard flocks.

“In Egypt, outbreaks in domestic poultry have now been confirmed in 10 governorates [administrative divisions]; deaths have also been reported in exotic zoo birds,” said the WHO statement. “In Iraq, presence of the virus in birds was found only after the country confirmed its first human case.”

A list compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes 27 nations where the disease has been detected since its emergence in late 2003.  This account does not include nations in which H5N1 has not been definitively confirmed, meaning the total number of nations with confirmed cases of bird flu could rise again within days.

Of the nations newly detecting the disease in February, Iraq is the only one to report a human case of H5N1 infection, WHO says. (See related article.)

The Geneva-based agency underscores that H5N1 remains an animal disease, as it is being seen now, and has not undergone a genetic mutation that would allow it to become easily transmitted among humans.

“Human infection remains a rare event,” WHO reports in a statement assessing the genetic shift of H5N1, and debunking media speculation that the virus is becoming a greater threat to humans.

Over two years, WHO has confirmed 170 human cases of illness caused by H5N1, 92 of those fatal.


As international awareness has risen with the spread of avian influenza over the past year, governments are focusing their attention on containment activities to prevent the spread of the virus after detection in a given area.

That process is unfolding in different ways as this dangerous form of bird flu has been discovered in countries for the first time.

The European Commission adopted a policy February 17 to implement protection measures on the appearance of the virus in member states.

The measures call for the establishment of a 3-kilometer-high risk area around each outbreak, to be surrounded by a surveillance zone extending to 10 kilometers from the outbreak site.

Inside the smaller protection zone, poultry must be kept indoors and its movement is banned except transport directly to a slaughterhouse.

Inside the entire surveillance zone, biosecurity measures must be strengthened on all farms, hunting of wild birds is banned, and disease-awareness programs must be undertaken to explain the risks to everyone inside the zone.

Boosting that awareness is a shortcoming in containment efforts being undertaken in Nigeria, according to a report from an international investigatory team sent to Nigeria after its first report of disease in domestic flocks February 8.

Experts from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report “little awareness among the population regarding the risks of avian influenza and the protective measures that should be taken.”

The technical team also cited shortcomings in the implementation of basic control measures, such as restriction of animal movements and closing of poultry markets.

The OIE-FAO team did find a fairly strong veterinary service in place to contend with the animal disease that has caused the death or destruction of more than 40,000 domestic birds so far.

Some 800 veterinarians and 7,000 technicians are available in Nigeria to cope with the outbreak. (See related article.)

Information on mutations in the H5N1 virus is available on the WHO Web site.

For additional information on the disease and efforts to combat it, see Bird Flu.