How the bird flu virus found its way to San Luis, Pampanga, some 64 kilometers north of Manila, seems irrelevant now. The fact is, the Department of Agriculture has confirmed an outbreak of avian flu, first detected in April in Barangay San Agustin.
Because the A(H5) strain of the virus is highly contagious and could easily decimate the poultry population of Luzon, the Bureau of Animal Industry has declared a 1-kilometer quarantine radius from San Agustin, and a 7-km control area.
Even if there are no confirmed cases of human infection in the country from this bird flu outbreak so far, the Department of Health has stepped up its surveillance on human flu-like illness in light of the human influenza outbreaks in Hong Kong and India earlier this year.
The objective is to check if there has been any human case of infection particularly among those who may have been exposed to the virus in the affected areas. “Any person who becomes sick with fever and/or sore throat/cough and had exposure to these dead chickens should report to the local health center or nearest hospital for laboratory confirmation,” the Health department said.
The persons most highly at risk are the poultry farm owners and workers. The poultry industry is a major economic activity in Pampanga, and Gov. Lilia Pineda has declared a state of calamity in the province of more than 2 million people.
“For avian influenza viruses, the primary risk factor for human infection appears to be direct or indirect exposure to infected live or dead poultry or contaminated environments, such as live bird markets. Slaughtering, defeathering, handling carcasses of infected poultry, and preparing poultry for consumption, especially in household settings, are also likely to be risk factors,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The government must not take the situation lightly. It must devote a significant number and amount of human and financial resources to stop the bird flu from spreading beyond the 7-km control zone and keep the population in check, before it could evolve into an epidemic with devastating consequences on the human population and the economy.
In the November 2016 “Avian and other zoonotic influenza fact sheet,” the WHO could not be more explicit about the dangers of a bird flu outbreak.
“To date, although human-to-human transmission of these viruses is thought to have occurred in some rare instances when there had been very close and prolonged contact between a very sick patient and caregivers such as family members, there has been no sustained human-to-human transmission. If these viruses adapt or acquire certain genes from human viruses, they could trigger a pandemic,” it said.
It’s not because this is happening for the first time in the Philippines, which in the past flaunted and prided its status as a country free of the bird flu scourge. But the reality has shifted dramatically as avian influenza broke out right in our backyard, in Central Luzon, four months ago. The likelihood of human infection is not far from reality. It has happened elsewhere in the world, it can happen here.
Studies have found there are many subtypes of avian influenza viruses, but only some strains of five subtypes can infect humans, namely, H5N1, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9 and H9N2. The specific subtype that has hit Pampanga is still being determined.
The words of Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, banning the transportation of poultry and poultry products from Luzon to other parts of the country, setting up checkpoints within the quarantine and control areas, and culling 200,000 chickens, quails and ducks are reassuring: the government appears to be doing all it can to keep the bird flu from spreading beyond San Luis.
But the extent and efficiency of the measures being taken by the relevant government agencies—the Agriculture and Health departments and the Animal Industry bureau—against the avian disease remain to be seen. As we protect ourselves from possible contact with infected fowl, we also expect the government to do its utmost in keeping the avian flu outbreak from spreading.