Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 16, 2023 (PAHO)- The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) this week brought together animal and public health experts from nine countries in the Americas to agree on strategies to strengthen the prevention and control of avian influenza in animals and mitigate the risk of human transmission.
The meeting, organized by PAHO’s Health Emergency Department and the Pan American Center for Foot and Mouth Disease (PANAFTOSA), took place at a time when the region is experiencing avian influenza outbreaks in poultry and wild birds. By the first week of March, 14 countries in the region had reported outbreaks, and a human case of avian influenza was reported in a Latin American country in January.
"Animal and human health are interconnected, so collaboration among the various actors at the human-animal interface is critical to prevent avian influenza transmission to humans, as well as to rapidly detect human cases, care for potential patients, and respond to outbreaks," Dr. Andrea Vicari, Chief of PAHO's Infectious Hazard Management Unit, said.
"Currently, the probability of sustained human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is very low, but we must be prepared for that possibility," said Dr. Manuel Sánchez Vázquez, a Veterinary Epidemiology Advisor at PANAFTOSA. For this reason, he added, "it is crucial that public and animal health sectors carry out joint risk analyses to establish mitigation strategies."
Within the framework of the Regional consultation for strengthening intersectoral work in the human-animal interface of influenza, representatives of the Ministries of Health and Agriculture of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, as well as PAHO and other partners, drew up a series of guidelines to mitigate the risk of avian influenza transmission. These, in addition to PAHO's recommendations, can be adopted by countries across the region.
Recommendations include reinforcing work for the prevention and control of avian influenza outbreaks; the creation of national technical commissions for information exchange and analysis between ministries of health, agriculture and environment; and strengthening surveillance and response to avian influenza. They also promote the development of risk communication and community engagement strategies.
Proper adherence to hygiene and biosecurity standards for workers exposed to infected birds or contaminated surfaces, as well as early detection of human infections and containment measures are also key actions.
Experts also recommend monitoring other animals, such as pigs, which can contract influenza and transmit the virus to people.
"It is important to maintain virus surveillance in both birds and pigs for the timely detection of genetic changes that could render it more transmissible to humans and from person to person,” Vicari said. “If this situation were to occur, it could generate a pandemic," he added.
PAHO is working with countries in the region to strengthen surveillance of avian influenza virus in birds and to detect, treat and investigate cases of A(H5N1) infection in humans in a timely manner should they occur. In recent months, PAHO specialists carried out several technical missions to countries in the region to strengthen avian and other animal influenza surveillance capabilities.