H5N1 virus which is responsible for the dreaded avian influenza has now become a pandemic threat stretching from Asia to the European continent. This particular virus is carried and spread by birds and as such is also known as bird flu. The widespread persistence of avian influenza in poultry population is now causing serious alarm for many nations of the world. According to the World Health Organization (WTO), from mid December 2003 through February 2004, poultry outbreaks caused by the H5N1 virus were reported in eight Asian nations. These nations are South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and China.
In most of these countries, an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza had never been witnessed before. However, once the outbreak occurred, the virus began to have spill over effects on other countries. In early August 2004, Malaysia reported its first outbreak of H5N1 in poultry, becoming the ninth Asian nation affected. Russia reported its first H5N1 outbreak in poultry in late July 2005, followed by reports of disease in adjacent parts of Kazakhstan at the same time. Deaths of wild birds from highly pathogenic H5N1 were reported in both countries. Almost simultaneously, Mongolia reported the detection of H5N1 in dead migratory birds. In October 2005, H5N1 was confirmed in poultry in Turkey and Romania.
The track of travel of the virus makes it evident that influenza pandemics can rapidly infect virtually all countries of the world. Once international spread has begun, the pandemic will perhaps become unstoppable because the virus on contact spreads rapidly to human beings and from one human being to another human by coughing or sneezing. The fact that infected people can shed virus before symptoms appear makes the situation all the more dangerous. If the deadly virus succeeds to spread at this pace, it will cause 'millions of deaths and bring untold misery on the economies of the countries affected.
The WTO has identified potentially dangerous products from which human beings face high risk of contamination. These are live birds, fresh and frozen poultry (the virus can survive at low temperatures and frozen poultry meat may spread contamination), eggs (they can be contaminated on the surface and inside), chicken feed (dried or powder), and feathers in bulk, if they had not been treated or cleaned. In addition containers and other means of transports that have been used to convey this type of product and which originates in a country in the affected zone carries the risk of transporting H5N1 virus
With an abnormally large population to feed, Bangladesh can easily become infected by the H5N1 virus. One way for this virus to enter into the country is through the import of poultry, Poultry feed and poultry based products. And once the virus starts spreading inside the country the situation will turn out to be very crucial. With inadequate medical infrastructure and lack of experience to deal with such a threat it will be difficult for government officials to make timely intervention or even identify the symptoms easily. In such a case, a large number of virus-infected deaths may occur along with economic ruin for the country.
In Bangladesh poultry, poultry feed and poultry based products are always on high demand which has made the poultry industry thrive over the years. On an average 1.2 million poultry birds (chicken) are slaughtered in the country every day and around eight million people are directly or indirectly involved with the poultry business. Till date not a single case of bird flue virus has been detected in the country. This should not however be seen as a matter of satisfaction because the virus may show its symptom at any time given the large import of poultry, particularly poultry feed and poultry based products from other countries. The government of Bangladesh, therefore, needs to be extremely careful in handling the import of poultry, poultry feed and poultry based products into Bangladesh. The Bangladesh customs administration, as the principal agency of the government to regulate import, has an important part to play in this situation to protect the society from the spread of the vicious influenza virus.
As a consequence of the virus threat, the customs administration of Bangladesh has to adopt adequate control mechanisms at borders to intercept all imports of poultry, poultry feed and poultry-based products subject to applicable laws and regulations. Depending on the volatility of the crisis situation such laws and regulations may include:
l Prohibition or suspension of all such imports.
l Imports to be made via specialised offices with direct presence of health department officials trained to detect such virus.
l Imports to be covered by sanitary certificates issued by the competent government authority of the exporting country.
l Imports to be subject to document controls as a matter of course.
Introduction of the above steps will allow close and effective monitoring of animal movement and import of related products into the country. It has however to be noted that the government of Bangladesh has already banned the import of poultry and poultry based products from 17 countries which include India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Pakistan, Vietnam, Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. The step taken is definitely praiseworthy and timely but ensuring the effectiveness of control mechanism on import of poultry, poultry feed and poultry-based products is very important and the customs administration has to play the major role in enforcing the control.
Like Bangladesh, several other states too have taken measures to suspend imports from countries affected by this pandemic in order to prevent the spread of the infection in birds and any subsequent consequences to human health. The suspect items which may carry the virus and are usually imported have been identified by these countries as fresh poultry, reared and wild game birds, poultry meat products, preparations made of or containing meat of the above mentioned species, raw materials for the manufacture of animal feed and eggs for human consumption.
When such imports are made in any given Customs station in any part of Bangladesh, the Customs officer responsible for documentation check and clearance of consignments should thoroughly verify the declaration and content of consignments if they relate to the import of poultry, poultry feed or poultry-based products.
The writer is the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the World Customs Organization, Brussels, Belgium