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The OIE, World Organisation for Animal Health, highlights the exceptional nature of the influenza A(H7N9) event notified by China

Paris, 11 April 2013 – According to the official reports sent to the OIE by the Chinese Veterinary Authorities, poultry that have tested positive for the presence of influenza virus A(H7N9) and are also suspected of being the source of reported human cases, do not show any visible signs of disease, making it very difficult to detect this virus in poultry. 

“Based on the information currently available we are facing a rather exceptional situation, because we are dealing with an influenza virus of very low pathogenicity for poultry which has the potential to cause severe disease when it infects humans”, stated the Director General of the OIE, Dr Bernard Vallat.

The OIE is fully involved in the collective global effort to manage new risks presented by the influenza virus A(H7N9). Supporting this, the OIE has a Reference Laboratory for avian influenza in China (Harbin Veterinary Research Institute) which is currently conducting extensive analyses on the animal source of the virus. This laboratory is also recognised by FAO. There are an additional 15 OIE Reference Laboratories around the world which are also working on animal influenza (in poultry, pigs, horses).

The OIE also provides the secretariat for the FAO/OIE network of expertise on animal influenza, OFFLU, which includes the world’s leading experts on influenza in animals.   

The OIE manages all animal health information from around the world through its animal health information system (WAHIS), all data are available to the public on the Organisation’s website. As stated in the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code, the competent national authorities are required to notify to the OIE of all highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses, irrespective of their strain, detected in birds (domestic and wild), as well as all low pathogenic viruses of subtypes H5 and H7 detected in poultry (such as the avian strain recently notified by the People’s Republic of China).

The OIE also issues standards on the efficient control of diseases at their animal source including standards on good governance and the quality of Veterinary Services. Veterinary services are responsible for implementing these standards at a national level.

Therefore, humane culling must be used to eliminate the virus in infected animal production units. However, in addition to culling one of the key options for controlling the virus at the animal source in the medium term, and preventing its regional and global spread, could be to apply a suitably adapted vaccination policy of limited duration. Vaccination can protect susceptible animals, particularly in zones that are infected or at risk and in which a culling policy is difficult to apply.

During the previous crisis, involving the H5N1 virus, the OIE managed regional vaccine banks and now wishes to provide the global community with the benefit of its experience in this field. It is important to emphasise that it may be some time before an effective vaccine to protect against influenza A(H7N9) can be made available in sufficient quantities.  

The OIE also develops standards relating to the rules that its Member Countries can use to protect themselves from the introduction of diseases and pathogens through the trade in animals and animal products, while avoiding unjustified trade barriers. OIE standards are recognised by the World Trade Organization (WTO) as reference international sanitary rules.
The relevant normative texts are available in the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code (Chapter 10.4.). The strict application of the rules in the OIE Code is crucial to avoid the virus being spread worldwide through the international trade in birds and their products.     

Present situation in China

To date, eight outbreaks of low pathogenic avian influenza A(H7N9) have been notified in pigeons and chickens present in markets, all located in Shanghai and neighbouring Provinces.

The China Animal Disease Control Centre and the country’s animal health services, including the OIE Reference Laboratory in Harbin, are still investigating the precise animal source or the possible reservoir of the influenza virus A(H7N9).        At the international level, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working together to support China's efforts to manage this new and evolving situation.

Questions & Answers on influenza A(H7N9) virus

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