A recently-emerged strain of avian influenza virus in poultry in South-East Asia known as A (H5N6) represents a new threat to animal health and livelihoods and must be closely monitored, FAO said in a press release.
Chinese authorities first reported the influenza A (H5N6) virus in poultry in April, 2014. Since then, the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Vietnam have also detected the H5N6 virus in poultry.
"Influenza viruses are constantly mixing and recombining to form new threats," said FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer, Juan Lubroth. "However, H5N6 is particularly worrisome, since it has been detected in several places so far from one another, and because it is so highly pathogenic, meaning infected poultry quickly become sick and, within 72 hours, death rates are very high."
The fact that the virus is highly virulent in chickens and geese and potentially spread across a large part of Southeast Asia can translate into a real threat to poultry-related livelihoods. Poultry contributes to the incomes of hundreds of millions of people across South-East Asia.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which works together with FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) to support countries' responses to animal and human disease threats, is also monitoring the situation closely.
"An effective surveillance and an early detection of animal disease at source are two main keys to reduce the risk of dissemination and to ensure safe trade. The OIE calls on its 180 member countries to respect their commitment and to immediately notify on World Animal Health Information System (WAHID) any outbreak detected on their territory," said OIE’s Director-General Bernard Vallat.
Only one case of H5N6 has been reported in humans after contact with exposure to poultry shortly after its detection in China. The person later died. There have been no other human cases. Though the scientific community is still in the process of understanding the dynamics of this new strain, it is unlikely that H5N6 represents an immediate and significant threat to human health.
"Current evidence suggests H5N6 poses a limited threat to human health at this stage,"said WHO epidemiologist Elizabeth Mumford. "It's been detected in multiple places in poultry, yet we only have one human infection reported. This suggests that the virus does not easily jump from animals to humans. Of course, we still need to remain vigilant, because prevalence in poultry and therefore human exposure could increase during the winter."
Even if the public health risks posed by H5N6 currently appears to be low, other pathogens, including other subtypes of influenza viruses such as H5N1 and H7N9, still can present cause for concern. FAO and WHO recommend consumers follow appropriate hygiene, food preparation and food safety guidelines. These include: washing hands often, cleaning utensils and surfaces used during food preparation, and eating only well-cooked poultry meat products. People should also avoid handling sick birds or those that have died of illness.
An H5N6 outbreak or outbreaks could potentially overwhelm animal health systems in South-East Asia. An earlier strain of the virus, H5N1, has already impacted the livelihoods of millions of people and caused billions of dollars of damage.