CAIRO: The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank, held a one-day conference yesterday with the Egyptian Public and Private Sector to discuss response strategies to bird flu.
The conference, entitled, “Avian Influenza Biosecurity; Bridging the Knowledge Gap to Facilitate Public-Private Partnership, delved into all aspects of this global virus, from the lessons learnt from Asia, why contingency plans matter, to the importance of communication strategies.
“H5N1 is a high economic cost virus. We are still not clear on how the virus was introduced or how it moves from place to place, says Les Sims, a disease manager at Asia Pacific Veterinary information services Pty Ltd. “But we cannot have success in tackling this issue if all the stakeholders do not collaborate.
According to Sims, many of the infected countries are poor, unable to develop services and infrastructure in order to correctly and effectively diagnose and control the spreading of the virus.
“Unless the virus changes or we change the way we raise poultry, we cannot eradicate the disease. Furthermore, to change the way we raise poultry takes time, so we are going to have to learn to live with H5N1 for some years to come, Sims believes.
Citing Asia as an example, where the first available evidence of bird flu was found in China in 1996, Sims discusses the problem of controlling the spread of the virus. “What has happened in most cases is that we have first seen evidence of the disease in humans then poultry. By the time we have detected it in humans, the virus has spread, and the area or province in which we first detect the virus, is actually not the first area to contain the virus.
This is a very big problem when it comes to controlling and dealing with outbreaks because, once the virus has spread, it is virtually impossible to trace it back to its origins.
In addition, a lack of data stops government bodies from detecting the presence of the disease, which does not mean it does not exist. In fact, even with the vaccination and mass killing of infected and non infected birds that occurred in most countries with bird flu, the disease bounced back, which Sims attributes to non-biosecure production sectors.
In Honk Kong, live markets, where poultry from different parts of the country were bought, placed together then sold, the virus was a problem, simply because the cages in which the birds were placed had not been cleaned.
“It’s time to draw a line in the sand for commercial production and ensure that certain minimum standards are met and tied to market access. This does have resource implications; however, it should be part of the restructuring of the industry, Sims says.
The private sector has a stake in this too, according to Sims, who states that they have an incentive to work with the government to develop production standards.
In Egypt, out of 1,612 suspect cases of human bird flu, 14 were confirmed and five died while the rest are in recovery. From mid-march, out of 5,000 birds tested, 20 were found infected. Since the beginning of 2006, 20 governorates, 645 backyards and 845 commercial farms have been infected with the virus.
“Currently Egypt has 1,600 cases of avian flu, says Dr. Mona Mehrez, speaking on behalf of the minister of health and population. “From February, when we reported the first cases of bird flu, until today, the number of those infected has gone down.
According to Mehrez, collaboration between all sectors is vital to eliminate the virus.
“The best solution is to have discussions and talks like the one we are having here today, to discuss and share our solutions. This is not just a government problem. This is an issue for the people and the private sector and that is why we must collaborate rather than work in isolation, she continues.
H5N1 can have catastrophic implications on the sales price and volumes in the poultry industry, according to Dr. John Rich, managing director of Australian Agricultural Nutrition and Consulting Pty Ltd., making it hard for companies in the industry to survive. In Turkey, poultry sales fell by 80 percent while price fell by 50 percent after the outbreak.
The commercial consequences of the virus on the industry includes export bans, movement restrictions due to quarantine and associated losses, and a negative impact on a brand name if the brand is associated with a bird flu outbreak.
“It’s very difficult for a company to survive, which is why a contingency plan is vital, says Rich. According to Rich, companies need contingency plans across the board. They need to focus on sales and marketing plans, whereby they develop a sales price strategy and production reduction in addition to an inventory policy.
“They need to be aware that the effect of the virus is greater in A-class consumers and that sales and price effect is less in countries that have a higher percentage of C and D-class consumers where alternative protein sources are expensive, says Rich.
Companies should also have a financial and corporate contingency plan in place whereby they reschedule loans and interest from banks, advise and inform shareholders of a continuous basis, increase the payment cycle span with creditors, reduce terms of credit with debtors, reduce overhead expenses, refinance and be aware of the implications of inventory build up on cash flow.
“Remember, cash is king. The poultry business during these crises does not die of lack of profitability, but rather, they die of lack of cash, said Rich.
Effective communication strategies are also imperative, say the presenters.
While the Egyptian government has been hailed by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) for their transparency during this crisis, that does not mean they are sending the right message across.
“The disease has been magnified because people still fear eating poultry even though it cannot be transmitted once cooked. This means that we have all failed dismally in our communication strategies, says Sims.
Yet, according to Mario Bravo, senior communications officer, World Bank, it is hard to convey even the simplest of messages.
“Just trying to tall the people to wash their hands is very difficult, because they get insulted, adds Bravo, who compares bird flu with aids in the way people have reacted to the virus.
“Communication needs to be much more than just the dissemination of messages, he believes. “You need to raise public awareness, behavior-change for prevention, implement rapid training, reporting and response mechanisms, and involve the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders and the collaboration of the public-private sector.
According to Bravo, it is time for companies to forget about branding, corporate messages and 30-second ads, and expend their time and money on advocacy and long term objectives.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to avian influenza. There are many ways to address the problem and countries need a combination of tools to get the best impact, says Sims.