Egypt struggles to combat spread of bird flu to humans

CAIRO (AFP) — A third person has died from bird flu in Egypt, the hardest-hit non-Asian country in the world, as health officials struggled Thursday to enforce preventive measures. Iman Mohammed Abdel Gawad, a 16-year-old girl from the northern governorate of Menufiya, died after being rushed to hospital Wednesday suffering from high fever and shortness of breath, the official MENA news agency reported.

She was one of two new cases reported Thursday, bringing to 11 to the total number of confirmed transmissions to humans in the most populous Arab country. Two women died last month.

According to the latest figures released by the World Health Organisation, the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed at least 108 people worldwide but experts say many cases go unreported.

The bulk of human cases were reported in the Far East and China, where the epidemic broke out in 2003, but Egypt and Turkey have been the most affected countries in the new wave of infections that spread westwards this year.

“Wherever we have the virus, we expect to have human cases. It’s a highly pathogenic virus,” said John Jabbour, the WHO’s regional health regulation officer.

“The transmission from poultry to humans is increasing because of high exposure to birds and their droppings… People need to change their behaviour, the way they are living with poultry,” he told AFP.

While he praised the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus, some experts have accused the government of insufficient planning.

“Government planning is random,” said Talaat Khatib, professor of veterinary medicine at Assiut University.

He said public awareness campaigns were too weak.

He adding that Egypt should have taken more effective action when the virus appeared in nearby Turkey in late December, almost two months before it was first detected in Egypt.

“When the disease reached Turkey, everyone here should have been planning,” he told AFP. Health Minister Hatem Al Gebali said the latest victims were a 16-year-old girl and an eight-year-old child from the northern provinces of Menufiya and Qalyubia.

They were hospitalised but are said to be in stable condition.

Two infected Egyptians have already recovered from the virus but health officials say the Tamiflu drug is only effective if administered within 48 hours after the infection. In Egypt, a country where poverty is rampant and illiteracy rates high, a more systematic approach to monitoring the disease needs to be put in place, said Khatib.

Egypt, where urban rooftop and backyard rearings are almost a part of national folklore, has slapped a ban on domestic poultry farms and more than 10 million birds are believed to have been slaughtered.

While monitoring compliance with government measures is easier in large poultry farms, many Egyptians with small domestic farms have been reluctant to cull their birds.

“People in the villages rely on poultry for food and income,” Khatib said, stressing that the level of compensation offered insufficient incentive.

The government pays around five Egyptian pounds — less than $1 — for every slaughtered bird. Egypt consumes some 800 million birds a year and exports to the entire region.

Saber Abdel Aziz Galal, a ministry of agriculture official in charge of poultry infections, said the rising figures were expected.

“People do not respect instructions from the authorities,” he told AFP. “They consider poultry capital and do not think about their health.”

Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, is on a major route for migratory birds, at the crossroads between Asia and Africa.

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