Officials say bird flu unlikely to impact Cayman

With the latest bird flu outbreak in Turkey making headlines, and thousands of chickens dying in Trinidad, the Departments of Public Health and Agriculture have put their public education campaign on the disease in high gear.

Residents will soon be able to learn everything that is known about the disease and how it can affect the country at www.CaymanPrepared.ky, states a press release.

Brochures about the disease will also be widely distributed.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kiran Kumar and Chief Agricultural and Veterinary Officer Dr. Alfred Benjamin are also set to make the rounds on radio and television talk shows to answer the public’s questions about bird flu, the release said.

Reiterating that chances of the H5N1 bird flu entering and starting an outbreak in the Cayman Islands are extremely remote, Dr. Kumar said government is taking its bird flu preparedness seriously.

‘We have established an inter-departmental surveillance response plan for early disease detection in birds and humans as well as the management of such cases.

‘Furthermore, all steps are in place to address bird flu and plans are under way regarding flu pandemic preparedness,’ he explained.

‘There is no reason to panic, but we must be vigilant,’ said Dr. Kumar, adding that Cayman tends to be vulnerable to potential outbreaks because of its considerable volume of international travel.

Dr. Kumar also stressed differences between avian influenza, which affects birds and influenza viruses that affect humans. ‘When an avian influenza virus has fully established human-to-human transmission creating a global pandemic, then it is human influenza and not bird flu anymore.’

Migratory birds

The possible role of wild migratory birds in spreading bird flu is not well understood. There are large migratory bird populations on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, and although the latest reports show that scientists have been unable to link the virus’ spread to migratory patterns, suggesting that wild birds, primarily waterfowl and shore birds, are not the primary transmitters of the bird flu.

There is a concern, however, as wild birds have been known to spread the disease to some extent and cannot be ruled out as transmitters of the disease, the release said.

To keep Cayman’s wild bird population under close watch, the Department of Agriculture has enlisted the help of local bird watchers and farmers.

‘We’ve contacted these groups, explaining what to look for and what to do when they see a dead bird,’ said Veterinarian Dr. Colin Wakelin.

‘Although we ask people to report all dead birds to the department, I want to stress that one dead bird doesn’t necessarily signal that the current deadly avian flu H5N1 is present. Birds die from many different causes. One death followed by multiple deaths in the following days usually signals something more serious. However, we are not taking any chances and we will treat every bird death seriously.’

Putting the bird flu threat to Cayman in perspective, Dr. Benjamin said there are certain factors in favour of the Islands.

‘Firstly, the H5N1 strain has not yet been reported in the West, the Americas or the Caribbean. Secondly, the Cayman Islands don’t have a poultry industry, with large concentrations of birds and live and fresh meat markets, nor do we have high density populations of humans, as observed in Asian countries, so human contact with birds in that sense is very limited.’

Dr. Benjamin also pointed out that historically, the Islands with its vast surrounding oceanic border has remained very isolated from many diseases that are commonly found in other jurisdictions.

‘Most importantly, we have a very strong set of conditions for the importation of birds and bird products which restrict entry of these animals and their products for any areas where bird flu or other highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza exists,’ he said.

‘With the use of these protocols we have been able to respond quickly and effectively to past outbreaks of highly pathogenic influenza strains in other countries.’

What to do when you see a dead bird:

Do not touch or remove the bird. Moving the dead bird will spread the virus if present.

Contact the Department of Agriculture 947-3090.

There is a plan of action for the Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Health for the collecting of samples and safe disposal of dead birds.

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