FAO's commitment to fight emerging disease threats in "hotspot" regions worldwide is getting a boost with new funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the UN agency has announced.
The funding, totalling more than $20 million, will support the ongoing US-FAO partnership against H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and a widening focus on potential emerging pandemic threats.
The US assistance will help strengthen preparedness and response to HPAI in Southeast Asia and bolster laboratory and surveillance capacities in hotspot areas.
The majority of the funding will support activities in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and Vietnam, which continue to experience outbreaks of H5N1 HPAI in poultry as well as cases in humans, some fatal.
Surveillance and prevention
Funding will also go to regional coordination to combat avian influenza and to support surveillance and prevention in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Nepal and Myanmar, which are threatened by the disease's continuing persistence in neighbouring countries.
These countries continue to have sporadic outbreaks, indicating the H5N1 virus continues to circulate in poultry and remains a threat to poultry production, human health and the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable farmers who depend on poultry raising for their basic food needs and a means of making a living.
"The US Government has been key in generating international support to combat avian influenza and to reduce the chances for a human pandemic by assisting FAO and others to address the threat in animals before it spills over into humans. Such support for basic prevention measures is rare, yet most sensible and cost effective," said FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth.
Thanks in large part to the USAID-FAO partnership, since avian influenza grew to proportions of a global crisis between 2004 and 2006, the scientific community has gained a deeper understanding of what drives disease emergence and thus the measures to take to prevent disease.
Due to the speed with which animal-origin pathogens such as H5N1, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003 and the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, caused by a virus that had combined elements of avian, swine and human origin, USAID launched its "Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) programme.
Through EPT's "Identify" component, support is funnelled to countries to strengthen the capacities of national and regional laboratory networks to diagnose and characterize different types of influenza virus threats.
This continues to be especially important in Southeast Asia, where new virus strains continue to emerge, which can eventually develop into a direct threat for human health and perpetuate poultry losses. In addition, as viruses adapt, poultry vaccines against H5N1 can lose their effectiveness, leaving domestic poultry vulnerable to disease.
Beyond bird flu
Sheer population numbers and population density - animal and human - are clear risk factors for influenza virus emergence. And Southeast Asia is considered a ‘hotspot' region given already high population numbers and the rates of population expansion - of people and animals living in ever closer contact.
China alone is home to half the world's pigs, about a quarter of its chickens, 70% of all ducks and 90% of the globe's geese. Close contact among them all provides viruses with many hosts and the opportunity to jump species, which in turn can lead to virus adaptations and eventually an influenza virus with pandemic potential. EPT "Plus" monitors the animals that have the closest contacts with humans - poultry and pigs especially - to catch pathogens emerging from the animal world before they can affect humans.
Total US commitments to FAO's activities in the fight against HPAI and other zoonotic diseases over the past seven years have totaled around $213 million.