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CONGO: Still vulnerable to avian flu

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  • CONGO: Still vulnerable to avian flu

    CONGO: Still vulnerable to avian flu

    <SMALL>[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]</SMALL>

    <TABLE cellSpacing=5 cellPadding=5 width=190 align=left border=0><TBODY><TR><TD>
    © FAO</SMALL>
    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>BRAZZAVILLE, 20 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - The avian flu threat continues to hang over the Republic of Congo because, despite a ban, imported poultry and its products still appear in the country’s markets and it is on the flight path of European migratory birds.

    "The avian flu worries us no end because this country is already devastated by epidemics, particularly the Ebola virus hemorrhagic fever," Jean-Joseph Akouala, head of epidemiology services for the Department to Fight the Avian Flu in the Ministry of Health, told IRIN.

    To avert the initial threat the government produced a 15-point emergency influenza prevention plan, principally banning poultry and poultry product imports. In February, it set up an Interdepartmental National Committee, with a one-billion-franc CFA (about US$2 million) budget under the prime minister, to monitor and prevent an epidemic. The committee immediately opened offices in each of the country's 11 administrative departments, manned by specialists in environmental, affairs, fishing, agriculture and animal husbandry.

    However, this has failed to stem the direct imports and those routed though neighbouring countries that elude health officials.

    "Our borders are permeable," Gabriel Eleka, the director of public health at the Ministry of Health, said.

    Furthermore, there is no legal sanction for those defying the ban, although police and customs agents are allowed to burn these products without compensating the owners.

    Another factor increasing the potential for a bird flu attack is the lack of an integrated disease monitoring system among the countries within the central Africa region. Given that the Congo River Basin constitutes a single biosphere with a concentration of viruses and epidemics, this omission is all the more worrying.

    "Unfortunately, the Congo Basin is a weak point as regards the response to epidemics," Jean-Vivien Mombouli, the technical adviser at the Ministry of Health and research director at the National Public Health Laboratory, said.

    So, despite all the measures taken to prohibit poultry imports from Asia and South America, these are still found in the country's markets. The government says these and other food imports are worth 100 billion francs CFA each year (US$202.8 million). Given that this weakness provides an avenue for possible introduction of the bird flu virus, the government has set up a national food committee called Codex, to test the quality of food available for public consumption.

    Public Apathy

    In February and March dead birds were found in the Congo, giving rise to fears that the virus had arrived in the country, especially since this occurred at a time when neighbouring Cameroon was affected. Samples sent to South Africa for laboratory analysis proved negative. However, officials said the methods used to collect the samples could have been defective, thereby possibly leading to false negatives readings. "The techniques used to extract the samples were not good," said Mombouli.

    The negative test results have relaxed people’s attitude to the virus, to the point of apathy. "People no longer talk about it and think that the disease is under control. [But] it is still there, even if it has not yet arrived at our doorstep.

    "It is a viral disease and the virus cannot really be controlled. At this moment, the whole world is fighting to avoid a genetic mutation to the point that the virus jumps from human to human," Akouala said.

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO), on rare occasions the H5N1 virus has crossed the species barrier to infect humans. Normally, it is only transmitted between birds and, less commonly, pigs.

    In Africa, the H5N1 virus has broken out in Nigeria, Niger, Egypt, Cameroon and Sudan. Taking into account the Congo's equatorial location and porous borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon and Cameroon, it may have to devise and apply tighter control measures than those taken so far if it is to ensure containment and elimination of the virus if it appears.

    [CONGO: Interview with Dr Jean Vivien Mombouli on threat of avian flu]