Bird Flu Outbreak in North Korea Contained

ROME, Italy, April 25, 2005 (ENS) - An outbreak of avian influenza in North Korea has been contained, the United Nations said today, assuring the world and at the same time urging the country to continue surveillance on the affected farms and elsewhere to ensure that no residual infection remains.

An H7 strain of the bird flu virus had been detected recently on three poultry farms near the capital Pyongyang, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Although this virus caused severe disease in thousands of chickens, it is not directly related to the H5N1 avian influenza virus circulating in other parts of Asia.

"The virus appears to have been eliminated from the three infected farms by combining culling of around 218,000 infected chickens, vaccination of unaffected birds in unaffected poultry houses and strict biosecurity measures," said FAO consultant Les Sims, who travelled to Pyongyang to advise the North Korean veterinary authorities on bird flu control.

North Korea has acted promptly and appropriately and has provided essential information in a timely manner, Sims said, and the official declaration to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) was done in due time.


Chickens are susceptible to the 15 strains of avian influenza that are known to exist. (Photo by Ian Douglas courtesy FAO)
The FAO sent three experts to the country to assist national authorities in diagnosis and disease management. This was done through the East Asian Regional Network on Avian Influenza set up by the FAO.

The government of North Korea formally appealed to the international community for help to fight avian influenza at an international conference in Paris earlier this month, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the FAO.

Some 300 key veterinary experts and scientists met to discuss the current scientific information on bird flu and to address different aspects of disease surveillance and control strategies at the conference jointly organized by OIE/FAO, in collaboration with the World Health Organization.

North Korea asked FAO and OIE to provide diagnostic tools and technical assistance for disease control strategies, including vaccination.

The two international agencies welcomed North Korea's request as a sign of improved transparency and international cooperation on the part of the reclusive government.

Public health experts reacted quickly to North Korea's request for help because of fears that the H5N1 strain of the virus might mutate into a form that is easily spread from one human to another, setting off a global pandemic.

FAO officials urged North Korea to continue bird flu surveillance throughout the country. "Reagents and laboratory tools provided by FAO will assist in continuing the battle against the virus, but additional strengthening of veterinary diagnostic and surveillance capacity is seen as a priority to ensure that this work is completed," said Joseph Domenech, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer.

North Korea received help in fighting the flu from its neighbor to the south on Friday. In a rare contact between the two countries, a team of South Korean officials travelled to the North Korean city of Kaesong, Unification Ministry officials said. The team included agricultural, veterinary and unification officials.

Poultry production is one of the few economic sectors that is growing in North Korea, the FAO says. The number of poultry is estimated at some 25.5 million in 2004, about double that in 1997.

The supply of animal protein has been very limited in North Korea, and the FAO says the poultry sector could contribute to improve the nutrition of the country's population of around 22.5 million people by adding a valuable source of animal protein to their diets.


A woman and her daughter in Huichon city, Chagang province, North Korea (Photo by Gerald Bourke courtesy WFP)
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says millions of people need food assistance.

Tony Banbury, WFP's Director for Asia, warned earlier this month that many people in North Korea who desperately need WFP food will suffer even more if the agency does not receive additional contributions quickly. “We’re doing our best to mobilize support, but we need more help from the authorities in Pyongyang,” he said.

The spread of the disease into North Korea underlines the need for close regional cooperation, the FAO said. North Korea is already benefiting from a regional FAO project on avian influenza, shared with China, Mongolia and South Korea. The project assists in improving and upgrading veterinary laboratories as well as creating a network for the sharing of epidemiological information, and provision of equipment to control and prevent avian flu.

A national workshop on bird flu will be held soon in North Korea to improve awareness of the disease, and provide information on control methods, laboratory diagnosis and good farming practices. The workshop will be jointly organised by the government and FAO.

It is essential to fight the bird flu virus in poultry, free-range chickens and ducks, in order to reduce the risk of a human flu pandemic, the UN agency said.

Since the most recent emergence of the H5N1 avian flu virus in December 2003 in China, hundreds of millions of birds have been killed in eight Asian countries. The countries subject to infection are now on high alert to keep the disease in check.

Vietnam announced plans on Tuesday to bring the disease under control by 2006 or 2007, and eliminate it by 2010, the local newspaper "Viet Nam News" reported.

The country will ban raising poultry in some inner cities and urban areas, including Hanoi capital city, Ho Chi Minh city, Hai Phong northern city, and Hue central city, and isolate fowl production establishments from residential areas, Vietnamese deputy minister of agriculture and rural development Bui Ba Bong said at a conference reviewing bird flu prevention on last Monday.

Vietnam will extend an existing ban on hatching and raising waterfowl to the end of this year, and local farmers will not be allowed breed waterfowl in fields. In addition, the country will use bird flu vaccines on chicken flocks and waterfowl in southern Tien Giang province and northern Nam Dinh province on a trial basis this year.

Bird flu has infected 71 Vietnamese people and killed 36 of them since December 2003, according to the Health Ministry. Meanwhile, the disease has killed or led to the forced culling of some 46 million fowl in Vietnam.