LANCASTER, Pa. — As avian influenza traveled the world over the past decade, Jarra Jagne followed it.
The Cornell Extension veterinarian spoke Sept. 18 of her travels with USAID from 2006 to 2010 at the Pennsylvania Poultry Sales and Service Conference and 85th Northeastern Conference on Avian Diseases at the Eden Resort in Lancaster.
Poultry is a major source of protein in poor countries, Jagne said, but poor biosecurity and government oversight allow poultry diseases to spread rapidly. Countries like Egypt and Indonesia have high population densities of both poultry and people.
Part of Egypt’s problem is that its people are packed around the Nile River, while the rest of the country is a rather inhospitable desert, she said.
Hong Kong consumes 120 pounds of chicken per capita each year, and China’s consumption is rising rapidly, she said.
“There were very few countries” that responded well to avian flu outbreaks, she said. Thailand was one of the few success stories, as the government acted decisively to avoid losing its edge as one of the world’s top poultry exporters.
Nigeria also did well, partially because bird flu seems to survive poorly in the hot, dry climate found in Nigeria and much of Africa.
Jagne, herself an African, said she was proud that her continent had fended off the disease.
Since 2003, 62 countries have reported bird flu cases to the World Health Organization, including 15 countries where the disease spread to humans. Of 637 humans infected, 378 died, a mortality of 60 percent, she said.
Clinical signs of influenza in birds include sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge and hemorrhages in the shanks. Egg laying craters. Birds in other countries exhibited tracheal lesions more often than U.S. animals.
Birds can be fine one day and dead the next, with 80 percent mortality common.
Ducks are particularly effective at spreading bird flu, and they do not display any symptoms. Farmers in Southeast Asia feed ducks by having them glean rice paddies after the harvest, which exposes other ducks and humans to the disease.
Egypt actually has more ducks than chickens. Ducks are important enough to Egyptian culture that they appear in art from the Pyramids. “You don’t see drawings of chickens” in those ancient monuments, Jagne said.
She said governmental dysfunction hindered efforts to control the disease’s spread.
“You spend so much time trying to play politics” instead of dealing with the virus, she said.
The U.S. gave bird-flu aid to countries, such as Azerbaijan, that had oil but no bird flu, while countries that desperately needed the money were passed over, she said.
Most countries were too disorganized to follow the proper protocol for controlling epidemic diseases, she said.
Jagne and her colleagues also faced opposition from locals who thought the researchers’ concerns were petty. “People are dying of malaria, and you’re coming and telling us about a chicken disease?” was a common response, she said.
Some Egyptian farms observe biosecurity practices carefully, but many farmers erect chicken houses without government knowledge.
She showed a picture of one complex where four four-story chicken houses were built right next to each other.
The buildings had openings that allowed wild birds to fly in and eat the chicken feed. Though they were unaffected by the flu, the wild birds picked up the illness and spread it to other chickens and, potentially, to humans.
Live-bird markets in poor countries were another challenge because they are numerous, unregulated and biologically insecure.
“In Bangladesh, they had like millions of chickens coming into the capital each day,” she said, noting that Dhaka, the capital, is the most densely populated city in the world.
While most live-bird markets are in permanent locations, Egypt’s move constantly, which made them even more difficult to monitor.
Processing facilities that Jagne visited were often unsanitary and unclean. And employees did not have gear to protect them from the virus.
Almost everyone in Egypt keeps a few birds in the backyard, and they sell the birds frequently. Poor women buy ducklings so they can sell eggs or adult birds as a way to feed their families. Men sell ducks from crates on their motorcycles.
The Egyptian government had too many uncoordinated agencies trying to combat bird flu.
“They were kind of fighting each other all the time,” Jagne said.
Egypt’s Department of Livestock Services earned money on imported vaccines, so they pushed vaccination, which Jagne said is one of the worst control strategies.
Birds needed three shots to be safe from the disease, but bird owners often sold the animals between vaccinations, making the animals impossible to track.
Sixteen vaccines from China, France, Mexico and the U.S. were available, and the government did not test the effectiveness of the drugs.
The government refused to compensate farmers for destroying their birds, so farmers did not bother to report bird flu cases.
Jagne said it was ironic that the Egyptian government spent $21 million to buy vaccines but was not willing to pay for the simpler, more effective tactic of paying farmers for their birds.
“So the disease kept smoldering” and still has not been defeated in Egypt, she said.
Humane culling was hard to accomplish because cullers were poorly trained and equipped. Fowl are supposed to be gassed with carbon dioxide, but “in many countries, the only CO2 was in the local Coca-Cola bottling plant,” she said.
One culling event in Southeast Asia turned into a gruesome comedy of errors. The cullers tried to suffocate the birds by stuffing them in sacks, a point that drew gasps from the audience.
“Of course, half the bags were not closed well enough,” Jagne said. Many of the birds got loose, and instead of being euthanized, they were taken home by neighborhood children as a free dinner. Even the cullers took home birds, unaware of the rationale behind their work.
Even when the birds were killed, they were buried in very shallow pits, Jagne said.
By contrast, when bird flu first hit Thailand, the country lost 14.5 percent of its birds and suffered a few hundred human deaths. The country risked losing its lucrative markets in the Middle East.
Bangkok’s rapid response, however, halted the advance of the disease in Thailand. The government prohibited vaccinations, launched a public awareness campaign and did not wait on lab tests to act.
No Thais have died of the disease since 2006.
Thailand, currently the fifth-ranked broiler exporter in the world, now requires that poultry be cooked before it is exported.
Avian influenza has not gone away. Some 135 cases have been reported this year, with Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam being hardest hit. Two Italians were diagnosed with conjunctivitis caused by a strain of bird flu early this month, Jagne said.
Fears of civilization-ending flu pandemics have caused hysteria and fears about eating poultry, in foreign countries and in the United States. Jagne’s daughter was quarantined at college in 2010 after she got sick during a flu outbreak.
Poultry is not always to blame. A bird-flu wave in China in March sickened no farm birds, she said.
Fortunately, U.S. poultry flocks are in a much better position because of strict biosecurity and regulations. Having a good national and local command structure also goes a long way, Jagne said.
Above all, it is imperative, she said, that all stakeholders, from government to producer, buy into flu prevention tactics.