Potential threat

At last the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division under the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) has woken up to the potential threat of bird flu. According to WHO, the total number of confirmed human cases of avian influenza (H5N1) is 132 — with 68 deaths reported from December 26 last year till November 25 this year in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. And the toll is on the rise. The fact that migratory birds also flock to Nepal from Siberia, especially during the winter season, increases the risk of the spread of avian flu, though no such case has been reported in Nepal to date. However, prevention is always better than cure. Therefore, complacency is no virtue, though some livestock department officials and private poultry keepers have tended to brush aside the threat merely on grounds that no infection has been detected in Nepal. Experts also fear the possibility of human-to-human spread.

For the first time, the MoHP has estimated that Nepal would need $8.1 million for measures designed to prevent the bird flu pandemic, should it break, from spreading. According to the MoHP plan, the government needs $3.1 million for prevention and reduction of risk to human beings, $4 million for health systems preparation and responsibility, $75,000 for planning and coordination, $632,000 for developing surveillance system for birds, $45,000 for communication, and $225,000 for laboratory development. No doubt, bird flu preparedness is a good idea, but this cash-strapped government is in no position to undertake the task on its own; it needs donor support. But in a country where people, including children, die prematurely for want of simple and cheap medicines or vaccines and minimum care, it is worth considering whether so much should be made of bird flu scare. Having said this, though, the government should take every possible measure, including improving coordination among its line agencies, as well as with international organisations.