The detection of an H1N1 virus in turkeys in Chile has raised concerns about poultry farms elsewhere in the world also becoming infected with the pandemic flu virus currently circulating in humans, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Thursday.
Chilean authorities had reported last week the presence of pandemic H1N1/2009 virus in turkeys in two farms near the seaport of Valparaiso, Chile. The flu strain found in the poultry flocks is identical to the H1N1/2009 pandemic strain currently circulating among human populations around the world.
However, the discovery of the virus in turkeys did not pose any immediate threat to human health and turkey meat could still be sold commercially following veterinary inspection and hygienic processing. “Once the sick birds have recovered, safe production and processing can continue. They do not pose a threat to the food chain,” said FAO’s interim Chief Veterinary Officer, Juan Lubroth.
“The reaction of the Chilean authorities to the discovery of H1N1 in turkeys - namely prompt reporting to international organisations, establishing a temporary quarantine, and the decision to allow infected birds to recover rather than culling them — is scientifically sound,” he added.
The current H1N1 virus strain is a mixture of human, pig and bird genes and has proved to be very contagious but no more deadly than common seasonal flu viruses. However, it could theoretically become more dangerous if it adds virulence by combining with H5N1, commonly known as avian flu, which is far more deadly but harder to pass on among humans, the FAO said.
“Chile does not have H5N1 flu. In South-East Asia where there is a lot of the virus circulating in poultry, the introduction of H1N1 in these populations would be of a greater concern,” said Dr Lubroth.
That is why FAO encourages improved monitoring of health among animals and ensuring that hygienic and good farming practice guidelines were followed, including protecting farm workers if animals were sick and not allowing sick workers near animals.
“We must monitor the situation in animals more closely and strengthen veterinary services in poor and in-transition countries. They need adequate diagnostic capability and competent and suitably resourced field teams that can respond to emergency needs,” Dr, Lubroth said. The phenomenon is called genetic re-assortment or recombination - which may happen in the case of simultaneous viral infections of any of the hosts.
Chile now was the fourth country that was investigating the spill-over of H1N1/2009 virus from farm workers showing flu-like illness to animals, with swine becoming infected in Canada, Argentina and, most recently, Australia.
Even though the clinical infections in pigs and turkeys so far observed had been generally mild, the H1N1 virus in pig and poultry farms had the potential to bring about negative economic consequences such as trade-related restrictions and “misguided” perceptions of the quality and safety of meat products, according to FAO.