As more victims fall prey to Avian Influenza, Reem Leila
highlights the weaknesses of national awareness campaigns to combat the disease
Two women died of bird flu in Egypt on Monday, bringing to four the number of fatalities from the virus in less than a week in the most populous Arab country. All four cases were women and were believed to have resulted from exposure to sick or dead backyard birds.
Fardos Mohamed Haddad, 36, of Menoufiya province in the Nile Delta, was taken to hospital on Saturday and died early on Monday. According to the press release issued by the Ministry of Health and Population, Haddad suffered from a high fever, had difficulty in breathing and suffered from a pulmonary infection after coming into contact with birds suspected of being infected with Avian Flu. "She was placed on a respirator but died at dawn on Monday," a statement said. Abdel-Rahman Shahin, the official spokesman of the Health Ministry, said the patient had been exposed to poultry infected with bird flu virus. "Accordingly, all members of her immediate family and those she had recently come in contact with are being tested for the disease."
The government says it is conducting a vigorous campaign to combat the spread of the virus through vaccinations and raising awareness. Minister of Health and Population Hatem El-Gabali warned on Sunday against "slackness in the preventive measures taken to fight bird flu especially as winter approaches."
But some experts say the government has not done enough and tends to react rather than act. Talaat Khatib, a professor of food hygiene at Assiut University, said the government awareness campaign was not comprehensive enough. "Most doctors cannot even recognise the symptoms of bird flu in a human being," Khatib said. "People have become too lax, poultry shops began to reopen and the old slaughtering techniques returned without proper supervision from the authorities," Khatib added. During the summer months, and after Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation Amin Abaza became head of the Supreme Council for Combating Bird Flu, Khatib claimed there was a slowdown in the vaccination and awareness campaigns, thus leading to the spread and growth of the deadly virus.
Haddad's death was the third in less than a week and the 43rd case of bird flu in humans in Egypt. On Sunday, Fatma Fathi Mohamed, 25, from the Nile Delta province of Daqahliya, died of the disease just days after the death of Ola Yunes Ali. The two were diagnosed with the disease last week. Hanem Ibrahim, a 50-year-old from Damietta governorate in northern Egypt, was hospitalised on 24 December in critical condition before succumbing to the disease on Monday, bringing the number of fatalities to 19 since bird flu was discovered in Egypt in February 2006.
It is the third winter that the virus has struck after lying low during Egypt's hot summers, when it is much less likely to spread from one carrier to another. The government has promoted a poultry vaccination programme but coercive measures are hard to enforce. Prior to these four deaths, no bird flu fatality had been recorded in six months. Shahin has called on the public to remain vigilant and deplored the relaxation of precautions because of the belief that the virus had disappeared. He called for banning the raising of fowl in towns, transporting them between provinces without authorisation while reinforcing controls on where they are raised and sold. He also warned that sick people denying they have been in contact with contaminated domestic fowl makes it more difficult to detect the virus and to treat it, many times leading to fatalities. Women and children have borne the impact of the virus because of their central family role in taking care of domestic fowl.
The World Health Organisation said earlier this year that countries around the world had improved their defences against bird flu, but that the situation remained critical in Egypt and Indonesia where the risk of the H5N1 virus mutating into a major human threat remains high.
Around five million households in Egypt depend on poultry as a main source of food and income, and the government has said this makes it unlikely the disease can be eradicated. Deaths from bird flu now total more than 210 worldwide since 2003 and has resulted in culling millions of birds after the disease was reported in several African and Asian countries, as well as in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Health experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily from one person to another, possibly triggering a pandemic that could kill millions of people.