Alternative responses to avian influenza

Alternative responses to avian influenza

Alternative responses to avian influenza

Over the past decade, H5N1 – the virus for avian influenza – has spread across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. Fears of a human pandemic have led to an international response, funded by more than £2 billion of public money. But policymakers should rethink their approach to tackling the disease.

Avian influenza – also known as ‘avian flu’ or ‘birdflu’ – primarily affects poultry and wild birds. But it has also occurred inhumans and threatens to become a pandemic. There have been 245 human deathsfrom avian influenza since 2003, mostly among poor poultry keepers in Asia. Thedisease is likely to be endemic (present at all times) in countries includingIndonesia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nigeria and Egypt.

Research from the STEPS Centre, at the UK’s Instituteof Development Studies, identifies the three main responses to the disease inthe last ten years:

  • One response was to concentrate on animal health –this approach saw a focus on killing two billion poultry, controlling theirmovement, vaccinations and a ban on informal poultry markets.
  • The publichealth response focused on drugs and vaccines, health systems, and behaviourchange, including preventative measures such as hand washing and food hygiene.
  • Pandemicpreparedness, in which countries plan for a potential outbreak, was larger inscale than the public health response and focused on broader risk managementand security issues.

All three approaches emphasised controlling andcontaining disease outbreaks. However, little attention was given to theunderlying causes of the disease and its dynamics.

  • All three approaches depended on information systemsto work well, but these systems were often inadequate.
  • Little attention was given to the social and culturalaspects of the disease; no social scientists worked on the avian flu programmesof major international agencies.
  • Overall, countries ignored or denied the idea of anendemic disease situation, whereby regular outbreaks occur with little likelihoodof eliminating the virus.   

The researchers stress the need to move awayfrom a disease-focused response to avian influenza, based on outbreaks anderadication. Instead, it is important to accept it as endemic and focus on itsunderlying causes, as well as local responses to controlling it. Policy optionsinclude:

  • substantial investment in information and surveillancesystems based on tracking and reporting disease outbreaks
  • investment in ‘systemic surveillance’, which looks at thechanging dynamics of diseases and ecosystems
  • more social scientists involved in research into the disease,as well as participation from local experts such as small-scale poultryproducers
  • a realistic approach to governance within theorganisations involved in controlling diseases, with auditing acrossorganisations and involvement from the people whom the programme is meant to beserving
  • developing more meaningful indicators of the success of aresponse, which reflect the factors driving the disease such as poverty, equityand access.

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