San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country Prepared for Avian Flu

Though no cases of avian flu have been recorded in Costa Rica and the country is only at a slight risk for the disease – notorious for causing human and bird deaths in Asia and Europe – experts say no country is immune, and Costa Rica’s health and agriculture ministries and poultry producers have developed a plan of action to deal with it.

In Costa Rica, the risk for avian flu lies in migratory birds that make their way here from Alaska and Canada when the weather turns cold each year, explained Alexis Sandí, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) director of animal health. There is a possibility that these birds could cross paths with those migrating from Asia, catch the disease, bring it to Costa Rica and infect domestic birds, which could pass it on to humans.

Avian flu is “nothing new” to Costa Rica’s agriculture and public health officials and poultry producers, who have been working on strategies to prevent and combat the disease since 1995 and last year completed and implemented a national plan to prepare and respond to the disease, Sandí said.

Prevention is a key component of the plan, which mandates inspection of all “risky material,” such as live birds and eggs, that enter the country for signs of avian flu, Sandí said.

Workers are required to place any birds that show symptoms of avian flu, such as respiratory problems, in quarantine until tests are conducted to make sure they aren’t infected with the strand of the disease that can be transmitted to humans, known scientifically as avian influenza H5N1.

Another prevention strategy is monitoring domestic birds in farms and those people keep in cages (known as “patio birds”). In areas close to national parks, where migratory birds are likely to be, a sample of birds from farms and homes are tested for avian flu each month, Sandí said.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Web site, “evidence to date indicates that close contact with dead or sick birds … especially risky behaviors identified include the slaughtering, defeathering, butchering and preparation for consumption of infected birds” is to blame for human cases of avian flu. Exposure to chicken feces when children played in an area frequented by free-ranging poultry is also thought to have been a source of infection.

Considering these risks, poultry farms are also required to enforce their own biosecurity measures, explained Francisco Arias, director of communications for Corporación Pipasa, one of Costa Rica’s largest poultry producers.

This includes routinely checking eggs, incubators and birds for any signs of the disease and submitting monthly reports on the status of birds’ health to the Agriculture Ministry.

Pipasa also takes other biosecurity measures to minimize risk for all diseases, not just avian flu, Arias said, such as placing bathrooms at the entrance to all buildings for employees to wash their hands, disinfecting vehicles that enter the property and areas where birds are kept, and training employees who work with birds in biosecurity.

By remaining vigilant over poultry farms and systematically testing birds for avian flu, workers can detect potential cases of the disease, Cristóbal Zepeda, a researcher at the U.S. Center of Animal Health Epidemiology, told a group of poultry industry leaders at a workshop April 21 in Coronado, north of San José.

The workshop, sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) is part of the ministry’s strategy to train public health officials and poultry industry workers about avian flu.

Making sure birds stay healthy is only one part of watching out for the disease; a network of six hospitals throughout the country that monitor patients for signs of avian flu is also part of the public health sector’s strategy, explained Daniel Salas, director of the National Commission for the Preparation of a Flu Pandemic, a group of officials from the agriculture and health ministries who developed the national action plan.

Salas said the Public Health Ministry hopes to add six more hospitals to the network by the end of this year. Network hospitals test blood samples taken from patients with respiratory illnesses – which, along with fever, body aches and other flu-like symptoms, are characteristic of avian flu.

Any samples that prove “suspicious” under guidelines established by a Health Ministry manual are sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for further study.

These tests not only detect cases of known forms of avian flu, but also allow CDC officials to watch out for any new strands of the disease. So far no samples sent to the CDC from Costa Rica have tested positive for any form of avian flu, Salas said.

Communicating with the public and preventing misconceptions to avoid alarming people is another important element of

the Public Health Ministry’s work, Salas said.

“People, and even doctors, often have misinformation about the disease,” he said.

“For example, they think it can be contracted from meat and eggs, and this is not true.

“It’s also important to reiterate that the virus is transmitted to humans only by close contact with birds, not from one person to another,” he added. Still, internationally, health officials are especially vigilant of the virus becoming a “pandemic,” meaning it can be passed from human to human, not just bird to human.

The ministry also promotes good health practices, such as hand washing and disposing properly of tissues to prevent the spread of the illness if it were to appear here.

At a May 18-19 national conference, the National Commission for the Prevention of a Flu Pandemic will discuss plans for a national information campaign, which Salas said will likely include TV and radio commercials.

Strategies are also in place in case avian flu is detected, Salas said. Hospitals have information about how to treat patients with avian flu using antiviral medicines, which have been shown to increase chances of survival if administered within the first 48 hours.

Emergency procedures are also established

for each day after a case is detected.

“The sickness can spread very quickly,” Salas explained. “We would work to immediately determine where it came from and, in extreme cases, slaughter animals.”

Since 2005, human cases of the H5N1 strain of the virus, which causes flu-like symptoms and can result in death, have been recorded in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, according to the CDC Web site.


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