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By Tony Ligo

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (The Independent, Nov. 1) - Alarm bells are sounding across Australia over the risk of economic meltdown should an epidemic of the bird flu virus H5N1 hit the country.

Geographically, Vanuatu is one of the closest neighbors to Australia, not only in location but also in trade and aid.

Proximity in geography and trade are the two most worrying factors, especially as Vanuatu imports poultry from Australia and New Zealand. Even more important is the fact that Australia and New Zealand are Vanuatu's biggest revenue sources in the numbers of tourists arriving annually, especially since the latest Bali terrorism.

The Vanuatu Independent newspaper interviewed the acting director of the Vanuatu Quarantine Inspections Services (VQIS), Timothy Tumukon, Bob Heston of Toa Farm and the director general of the ministry of health, Myriam Abel about the possibility of the virus reaching Vanuatu.

"VQIS stepped up its border control when the virus was upgraded from an epidemic to a pandemic and surveillance is 'full on' to halt any article or human we view may carry the virus at the airports or the wharves," said Tumukon. "The threat of a local epidemic is serious if the virus reaches Vanuatu as the country's wildlife, especially fowl, wild and domesticated, are in abundance, especially in rural areas. Nevertheless we are doing our very best to make sure it does not come through the border control system."

A task force was set up with an action plan in place when the SARS virus threatened the nation a few years back and the same task force was called up again to prepare against bird flu.

"Within the 'Border Control Task Force' are experts from Quarantine, Health, WHO, and Customs and our objective is to execute our action plan. We operate under the direction of the ministry of health," said DG for health, Myriam Abel.

The team established an action plan, carried out training for how to respond, set up an observation and operations room at the central hospital to isolate cases and is ready to carry out similar functions with bird flu.

"We anticipate worst case scenarios such as dealing with human carriers who may travel by cruise ships or airlines and quarantine is ready to deal with the veterinary side of things," she added. "But we need experts from agriculture, trade, finance and foreign affairs to come into the task force."

Two health officers are flying out to Fiji next week to attend a World Health Organization assembly bringing together all Pacific island states to set up an emergency action plan, not only to combat bird flu, but any other possible future pandemic.

"A positive aspect is that the international health regulations were recently completed and put into operation. This will assist island nations set up action plans for immediate response and how we coordinate on a community to national to international level," the DG for health said.

Bob Heston of Toa Farm Enterprises, the largest poultry farm in the country, gave his expert views.

"Australia is very much in danger due to close proximity to Indonesia-Asia where country to country transmission is carried by migratory bird species. The question is how do wild fowl travel to Australia and New Zealand? Only their experts know and that is how they can control it.

"Vanuatu, on the other hand, is very lucky because there are few or no migratory birds passing through here. But if Australia gets it with all its strict controls, well then, there is no guarantee it will not get here."

Since Asia was marked as the origin of the bird flu outbreak, the Pacific Ocean and its island states are deemed the most vulnerable zone, including Australia and New Zealand. This makes Australia's warning bells an even more serious concern for island states such as Vanuatu.

"The first step authorities should take right now is to ban import of all live birds as their primary preventive measure," said Heston. "Travelers should be the next target inbound and after that destinations where the virus is already found."

The closeness between people and animals (as shown in cases in Asia) and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities create an ideal breeding ground for the virus. In other words, parts of the world such as Asia, Africa and the Pacific, with limited resources to carry out the above, bear the highest risks.

According to the most respected international science journal, New Scientist, the bird flu outbreak is expected in more countries. The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu killed over 60 people in Southeast Asia and appeared to have travelled extensively in the second half of 2005 from China to Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and now Europe.

It is now believed that the virus travels in wild migratory birds and is passed on to domestic species in areas where the migrating birds chance upon domesticated ones. It was forecast the Mediterranean and African continent will be hit next as birds migrate south to escape winter.

The fear now is that the virus will mutate which means developing to a state where it is able to pass from animals to humans more easily. For now, ducks and turkeys are the main carriers and poultry only in danger when it gets into contact with the two other species.

November 3, 2005

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