United States Helping Nations Brace for Bird Flu Outbreaks

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Veterinarians from four African nations spent a week at the U.S. National Veterinary Service laboratory in Ames, Iowa, in May, learning how better to diagnose disease in animals.

The Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored the training as part of a far-reaching U.S. effort to contain and control the strain of avian influenza that has swept into more than 50 countries over the last two years.

In doing so, the United States and its international partners hope to avoid the emergence of a human influenza pandemic, several of which have occurred over the past century when animal viral strains became dangerous to humans.

Pandemic influenza “could cripple economies, bring international trade and travel to a standstill, and also jeopardize political stability,” said Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky in a May 23 briefing with reporters at the U.S. State Department.

The threat of the emergence of a pandemic flu strain is greatest in underdeveloped regions of the world, where humans and domestic birds live in proximity and health care systems lack state-of-the-art capabilities to identify, diagnose, treat and contain disease.

“The occurrence of human cases, even sporadic [cases], would create enormous new challenges for health systems and services that are already fragile and overburdened,” according to the 2005 WHO report “Influenza pandemic risk assessment and preparedness in Africa.”


Detection and containment of disease in animals is considered a crucial action to prevent the H5N1 virus from becoming contagious among humans.

The FAS is helping other nations develop greater skills in detecting disease with courses of study offered at its veterinary lab. A course previously was offered in February, another will be held in June, according to a spokesman.

In the May 15-19 session, veterinarians from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria passed the diagnostics course and are now ready to return to their countries and train others in the same techniques, according to Dobriansky.

Seven sub-Saharan African nations have detected the virus. Animal outbreaks in domestic flocks have occurred in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte D’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan. A human case was detected in Djibouti May 12.

“The United States has provided $17 million to efforts in sub-Saharan Africa” distributed through a variety of programs, said Dobriansky.

All seven of the countries that have detected the virus have received personal-protection equipment consisting of protective suits and masks, which allow workers to dispose of sick and threatened birds without risking exposure to infection.

The United States also has provided support to help the Nigerian government set up a laboratory with the capability to test rapidly tissue samples for the presence of H5N1.

Prior to that action, Dobriansky said, samples were shipped to the U.S. Naval Medical Research Laboratory in Cairo, Egypt, for analysis, a process that took several days to produce results.

About two-dozen experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been dispatched to Nigeria since the H5N1 virus first was detected in February to provide assistance to its ministries of health and agriculture. Nigeria has experienced the most widespread rash of outbreaks in any of the African nations.

Dobriansky said the State Department also is reaching out to African governments diplomatically to emphasize the importance of the issue, and the department is receiving a strong response.


The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is helping upgrade laboratory capacity in Pakistan, according to a May 20 announcement.

The agency is providing the Pakistani National Reference Lab with sophisticated equipment that will allow results from a sample test within six hours, in contrast to the current testing time of 24-72 hours. Pakistan has had almost 30 outbreaks of the H5N1 strain on small-scale poultry farms.

In addition to this equipment, USAID has provided 2,000 sets of personal protective equipment, and will be working further to strengthen the Pakistani national lab and strengthen the nation’s ability to investigate and control communicable disease outbreaks.


The International Partnership for Avian and Pandemic Influenza was initiated by the United States in 2005 and now involves more than 90 nations working to control disease.

Dobriansky says the framework for international action is preparedness and communications, surveillance and detection, and response and containment. The United States has pledged $334 million to provide international assistance to contain and control avian influenza and prevent the emergence of pandemic flu.

For ongoing coverage see Bird Flu (Avian Influenza).