KOLONIA, Pohnpei - Although it's likely not anything to be too concerned about,and since it's also a good habit to be safe rather than sorry, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has brought in a permanent veterinarian to its staff to focus on the potential spread of avian influenza - commonly referred to as bird flu - from SE Asia into the Micronesian region.
But the main concern about bird flu is not necessarily the devastating effect that it could have on local chicken populations, migratory birds in the tropics, as well as native bird species; the primary concern may be its effect on humans.
"It has been shown that it can spread to humans," said Dr. Judith Bourne at her new office in the SPC building in the bucolic Pohnpei Botanical Gardens. "It caused disease and death in Indonesia," added Bourne on the spread of bird flu from chickens to people.
"It's a serious animal health concern," says Bourne, who was the Principal Veterinary Officer in Biosecurity Australia before joining SPC in the FSM. Her main task will be assisting the northern pacific islands "in their preparedness for the possible incursion of Avian Influenza," states a short press release by SPC. Bourne will work "with all levels of government" to develop a task force and preparedness plans, which will look at, amongst other things, bird migration routes and the major transport routes throughout the Micronesian subregion.
The bird flu disease is highly effective once the virus adapts itself and spreads to humans, exhibiting a 50% mortality rate. The plan that is being formulated now to prevent this from happening is referred to as the Pacific Regional Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan (PRIPP).
A quick reference to the SPC Website shows the PRIPP as one of its current "Highlights". "It will give Pacific Island countries an opportunity to establish a proper framework for addressing zoonotic diseases (diseases that are spread from animals to humans) and other emerging health threats…and are prepared to act quickly in the event of an incursion of avian influenza," explains Dr. ken Cokanasiga, Adviser for the Animal Health and Production Group in Suva, Fiji.
In the Pacific, human influenza outbreaks can happen at any time of year, either through the many people who pass through from the more temperate regions of the world, or through the movement of migratory birds and legal and illegal trade in poultry and poultry products.