Dec 22 2008
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Poultry industry braces for bird flu
Fears of a bird flu pandemic have ruffled the feathers of the local poultry industry, which reports a sharp decline in poultry demand as fearful consumers avoid chicken and chicken by-products. "We are taking all the necessary bio-security measures on our farms to keep out any virus, but still people are afraid of consuming poultry," says Dr. Fernando Parra-Echeverry, technical adviser to cairo poultry , one of the nation's largest poultry companies.
The h5n1 strain of avian influenza, commonly referred to as bird flu, is a highly contagious virus that spreads rapidly through poultry flocks with a mortality rate approaching 90 percent. Infected poultry and wild birds have been found in 12 Asian countries, as well as Turkey and Eastern Europe since the latest outbreak began in June 2005. Since the first outbreak in 1997, over 150 million birds have been culled and burned in efforts to prevent the deadly disease from spreading.
While avian influenza is highly contagious among birds, it can also be passed from birds to other animals, including humans. At least 128 people are known to have contracted avian influenza from contact with birds infected with the deadly strain. Nearly 50 percent of these cases resulted in death.
The government is not taking any chances. in October, the cabinet banned the import of all poultry and poultry products, as well as the hunting of wild birds. Health and environment officials are monitoring the movement of migratory birds, which could bring the virus from Eastern Europe. So far, 4,000 blood samples have been taken from migrating birds and tested at government labs, all of which have shown negative results for the virus.
Although no cases of the H5N1 virus have been identified in Egypt, demand on poultry has dropped off significantly since bird flu made headline news last summer following an outbreak in Asia. Mady El-Sebaie, General Manager of Cairo poultry , claims poultry prices have dropped by almost 30 percent in the past three months. He noted that the price of live chicken fell from £e 5.56 per kilogram on november 1 to £e 4.30 per kilogram on november 16, and will likely fall further unless the global spread of the disease is halted.
He says his company cannot afford to cut back on production until the fear of the disease passes. "With an industry like poultry you can't simply turn off the production switch, because you can't stop the chickens from laying eggs, except if you kill them all and this would be a total loss."
Consumers, however, are cautious. "I don't eat chicken anymore, and I've stopped my children from eating chicken both at home and outside," says Sayeda El-Araby, a 28-year-old mother of two. "Ever since I saw the doctors on television saying that eating chicken can cause bird flu... I decided I'm not letting it into my house again."
Maher al Azab, production manager of Wadi Holdings , which claims to hold a 20-percent share of the nation's poultry market, believes the media has played a huge role in scaring people from eating chicken products. "some people think that by eating chicken they will be infected, which is not accurate," he said.
According to Dr. Zuhair Hallaj, Director of Communicable Disease control at the World Health
Organization (WHO)'s regional office for the eastern mediterranean, bird flu can only be transmitted to humans through direct contact with an infected bird's feathers, droppings or body parts. Diseased birds are contagious during the slaughter process, but, he stressed, once the meat is well cooked it becomes completely safe. "Once the meat is cooked to 70 c the virus cannot survive so it becomes completely safe to eat," he says.
Eggs are also, in theory, safe. Hallaj noted that poultry infected with the H5N1 virus are incapable of laying eggs.
Officials at the World Food Program (WFP), however, advised caution. One doctor said she was unaware of this claim and that people should only eat eggs that are well cooked as a precaution.
Meanwhile, some food processing companies have complained that shipments of powerdered egg - an essential ingredient for their products - have been unjustifiably refused entry by customs. They point out that Egypt is the only country in the region to ban the import of powdered egg and that a who paper affirms that the pasteurization protocols used by the industry to make powdered egg are "effective in inactivating the virus."
Egypt's poultry industry has an estimated direct value of production of between £e 10 billion and £e 15 billion. This, however, does not include the operations of Baladi bird vendors, whose small shops are scattered throughout the country. "It's very difficult to even have an estimate of the Baladi operations since there are so many of them, but there's no doubt that they are a large market," says Al Azab.
A ban on live bird sellers within Cairo city limits was imposed several years back, but has never been enforced. Al Azab suggested that should bird flu arrive in Egypt, these small operations would be particularly vulnerable. While large poultry farms are taking precautions, many Baladi vendors appear ignorant of the threat of bird flu.
"These kind of diseases only affect asian countries," said Hassan Mohamed, a live poultry vendor in downtown Cairo. "We've never seen anything like this happen in any Arab country, so I believe we are safe." He went on to insist that the bird flu scare has not affected his business. "Egyptian people love to eat chicken and this news will not reduce the amount of poultry they consume."
For Cairo poultry , which holds an estimated 65-percent share of the poultry market, there has been a noticeable drop in demand in recent months. But the company is also facing the challenge of maintaining its supply following the cabinet's decision on October 20 to ban on all poultry imports for three months.
While 99 percent of poultry consumed in Egypt is domestic, many poultry companies import one-day-old GPS (grandparent chickens) for breeding. The GPS produce the broiler chickens that are raised for food. A gp typically costs $40 and is capable of producing 6,000 broiler chicks over its lifetime valued at $0.25 each. "We import the GPS from the US, France and the UK, which are all free from the H5N1 virus," explains El-Sebaie. "This ban will break the cycle of producing poultry for the Egyptian market. If we stop importing gps there will eventually be no broilers and the option of importing broilers is too expensive."
Ramzi Nasrallah, vice president of Wadi Holdings , says his company was fortunate in that it managed to bring in a large shipment of GPS just prior to the ban. "I guess we were one of the lucky companies to import GPS before the ban, but if they (the cabinet) decide to renew the ban for another three months, we will all run out of stock."
Poultry companies recognize the importance of the import ban as just one infected bird could result in the loss of their entire stock, either by the disease or by culling. "Avian influenza is a highly pathogenic disease that can lead to the death of an entire farm's poultry within 48 hours," explains hallaj. "The only way out is to cull and burn all infected birds."
At press time, health officials representing 22 developing countries were preparing to meet in Cairo on November 28-30 for a conference organized by the who to discuss the amount of funding needed for their countries. The funds would be used to purchase equipment needed to cull bird stocks in the event of an outbreak. Conclusions will be presented at a donors conference in beijing in January 2006.
Meanwhile, a national committee comprising various government bodies with representatives from the who, ministry of health, ministry of environment and ministry of agriculture has been formed to develop an emergency plan in case of a bird flu pandemic. The committee has allocated £e 260 million for prevention, though no details of a national preparedness plan have been announced.
Nor has a plan to compensate poultry companies that suffer losses as a result of a bird flu infection or culling. "This lack of compensation will lead many companies to be less transparent in announcing that their poultry is infected," warns El-Sebaie.
The private sector, however, isn't waiting for the government to act. the poultry association, a private grouping of 200 poultry companies, has allocated £e 5 million to be spent in case the virus hits any of its member companies. the funds would be used to purchase equipment, bio-suits and disinfectants for culling poultry stock.
While many industry experts business monthly spoke to feel the media has overplayed the risk of bird flu hitting egypt, they acknowledge the importance of precautionary measures and contingency plans. Nasrallah expects the industry will face difficulties for the coming 3-4 weeks but that, barring any outbreak, poultry prices should bounce back to normal.
Scientists fear the h5n1 avian influenza virus may mutate into a "killer virus" transmissible from human to human. Their fears are not unfounded. The spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, another strain of bird flu, spread around the world in a matter of weeks killing between 25 million and 50 million people.
While health experts admit the chance of the virus mutating this time round is slim, the stakes are high. "If human to human transmission occurs, I believe that one third of Egypt's population will die in three to six months' time," said Zuhair Hallaj, director of communicable disease control at the who's regional office. "That's why we have to be very cautious."
While there is no known cure for avian flu, the drug tamiflu has shown effectiveness in reducing the severity and improving prospects of survival of humans that contract the H5N1 virus, but only if administered at the onset of symptoms. Swiss drug maker Roche, which holds the patent to tamiflu, is seeking outside help to make the antiviral drug as it is unable to keep up with skyrocketing global demand as countries stockpile the drug amid concerns of a pandemic. The company has already licensed indonesia and thailand to produce tamiflu, while argentina and taiwan have jumped the gun and begun working on an unlicensed generic version of the drug.
Egyptian health authorities, however, insist the government has enough tamiflu stock to combat any outbreak of bird flu. "We currently have enough tamiflu stock at hand and don't need anymore," said Naser el Sayed, undersecretary for preventative affairs at the ministry of health. He did not specify the size of the emergency supply, adding that the figure should be kept strictly confidential.
In the meantime, many of Egypt's national and private labs are attempting to develop a vaccine that would fight the mutated virus.
By Amena Bakr
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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