‘Bird flu-free’ tag still ‘iffy’ as surveillance extended in hot zones

REGAINING the country’s once-precious moniker—a bird flu-free nation—remains up in the air as animal-health experts chose to extend monitoring and surveillance of areas hit by the dreaded avian influenza (AI) virus eight months ago.

According to the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), it may take few more months before the Philippines could be recognized once again as a bird flu-free country.

BAI-Animal Health Welfare Division Chief Arlene Vytiaco told the BusinessMirror that the agency decided to impose an extended monitoring and surveillance in Nueva Ecija and Pampanga “for any spillover [bird-flu] cases and due to influx of migratory birds.” These provinces were the hot zones for the pathogen, which experts said led to the compulsory culling of hundreds of thousands of layers and quails.

This latest action by the government is beyond what is written under what veterinarians treat as the Bible in addressing the virus: the Avian Influenza Protection Program: Manual of Procedures (AIPP:MOP).

“We are extending the observation period until the end of June, since we have to continue monitoring for any spillover cases and due to influx of migratory birds,” Vytiaco said in an interview. “At this point in time, we cannot yet claim with confidence that we are AI-free until we are done with the series of surveillance activities,” she added.

Vytiaco explained the BAI has already awarded on March 15 an AI-clearance certificate to a hot zone in Cabiao, Nueva Ecija.

She added they are now undertaking the third round of surveillance in the whole province of Pampanga and Nueva Ecija, which they expect to run until end of June.

Once there is no new case of bird flu after the BAI’s extended surveillance, the agency will recommend the declaration of the country as bird flu-free to Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol as early as July. Vytiaco said it would be Piñol who would declare the country’s freedom from the highly pathogenic AI.

OIE Guidelines

HOWEVER, under the Terrestrial Animal Health Code of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), a country can only be declared free from AI if it would not report any outbreak within 90 days after the final disinfection of the affected areas.

The Philippines, under the OIE guidelines, could now be recognized as a bird flu-free nation.

In fact, in an interview with BusinessMirror in February, Vytiaco said the 90th day following the last cleaning and disinfection of the bird flu-affected poultry farm in Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, should have fallen on March 23.

However, the BAI-AHWD has decided not yet to notify the OIE for bird flu-free status recognition as it opted to implement additional measures to ensure total eradication of the virus.

“I still wouldn’t like to assume without scientific basis,” Vytiaco said when asked if the Philippines is now bird flu-free, considering the guidelines of the OIE.

“Our notification is based on the secretary’s declaration.” In its official report to the OIE last December, the BAI said 42,000 birds  were affected by the bird flu that struck Cabiao, Nueva Ecija. Of the total population, 27,675 instantly died from the virus, while the remaining 14,325 were killed and disposed of.

The discovery of AI in a layer farm in Cabiao last November reset the country’s countdown to bird flu-free status. The government has earlier targeted to notify the OIE on December 20, after the cleaning and disinfection of AI-affected farms in San Isidro and Jaen, both in Nueva Ecija.

Still banned

THE recognition of the Philippines as a bird flu-free nation would reopen foreign markets for local poultry.

BAI National Veterinary Quarantine Services Division chief Dr. Florence D. Silvano confirmed to the BusinessMirror that Manila is still banned from exporting chicken products to its trading partners sans the official notification to OIE of bird flu-free status.

“We are still banned. Our trading partners are still awaiting our report to the OIE, declaring that we are bird flu-free,” Silvano said in an interview. “Once we notify the OIE, our trading partners would see that and base the lifting of their import ban on our report.”

She further explained that once the Philippines is declared as bird flu-free, the agriculture department, through the BAI, would now request to its trade partners to lift the import ban imposed on our poultry exports. The country’s poultry exports are banned in a number of countries, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, after the government announced the discovery of bird flu in Central Luzon last August.

In December last year Vytiaco expressed apprehensions the Philippines may lose its Japan export market for poultry products if the country will not be cleared from AI at the soonest possible time.

Citing industry reports, she said Japan may be forced to source its chicken imports from other countries next year to fill in the supply void left by the Philippines, after it was banned from exporting poultry products to Tokyo.

“The [operators of] cold storages have been communicating with me, and they are saying that their problem is that if it takes us so long to be AI free, then we may lose our market for yakitori,” Vytiaco told reporters in an interview.

“It’s been since August that we are banned from exporting yakitori. And, if this remains for so long, then the countries could source imports from other markets, like Thailand,” she added.

Turning Points 2018
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