An outbreak of bird flu in Spanish Lookout this week may not represent a serious health threat to Belizeans, but it is a serious economic problem.
The outbreak is serious for two reasons. More than 95 percent of all Belizeans eat chicken on a regular basis. It is the main source of protein for most families. Consider too that the number of infected birds confiscated by BAHA authorities was massive by Belize standards – 120,000 pounds of brooding hens worth $600,000.
This was a major infestation, although BAHA authorities assured us, and we have no reason to doubt them, that the H5N1 strain of virus was not of the virulent type that would pose a health threat to humans.
Still it is important to understand that the bird flu virus can be transmitted to humans and has been transmitted to humans on a number of occasions.
The bird flu virus is spread when wild birds pass the virus along to birds such as chickens or ducks that are being raised for human consumption. While the wild birds do not seem to be affected by the virus, livestock that come in contact with the virus become very sick, and many die.
Normally bird flu is not passed from birds to humans. However, in the past ten years there have been hundreds of cases of bird flu in humans, and scientists believe that if the virus continues to spread around the world, it could mutate and cause a bird flu pandemic.
Most cases of H5N1 infection in humans are thought to have occurred as a result of direct or close contact with sick or infected poultry. This happens because there is no natural immunity from bird flu in humans. Our bodies cannot develop antibodies to fight the virus as we do with other kinds of virus. Because of this we are all at risk for avian or bird flu, and that’s one thing that raises concern among health researchers.
But countries are more worried about the economic impact of bird flu than the health impact. In the Mexican, State of Guanahuato where 480,000 sick birds were slaughtered this week, authorities are predicting an acute shortage of eggs. The Government of Mexico has authorized the importation of 211,000 tons of eggs to satisfy the national demand. It is expected that there may be a shortage of eggs and poultry in Belize as well, in the short term.
Guatemala has already reacted to the reports of bird flu in Belize by setting up quarantine barriers in Melchor de Mencos and parts of Peten. Honduras and El Salvador have also taken note of the outbreak and are taking protective measures.
This is not the first time that Belize has had an outbreak of bird flu, and it will not be the last. Since viruses are all around us, it is impossible to avoid them. But we can refine our early warning system to minimize the impact of future outbreaks.
That way we wont have to kill off so many birds when the next attack occurs.