Bird Flu Outbreaks
In light of recent outbreaks of avian influenza, or bird flu, in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) held a meeting in Rio de Janeiro on March 16, 2023. Organized by PAHO’s Health Emergency Department and the Pan American Center for Foot and Mouth Disease (PANAFTOSA), the meeting gathered health experts from the Americas. They discussed strategies for halting the spread of the disease, which poses great health and economic risks to those dependent upon poultry.

Bird Flu

Bird flu occurs due to a virus of the Orthomyxoviridae family. Although the disease mainly spreads among birds, it can be transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals or contaminated feces. According to PAHO, risk factors include “handling infected poultry carcasses, and preparing poultry for consumption, especially in domestic settings.” Depending upon the severity of the infection, bird flu’s effects on humans can range from mild or asymptomatic to lethal.


In the recent past, several strains of the virus have spread across the globe. In the last decade alone, Southeast Asia and West Africa saw the disease spread widely, resulting in substantial losses of livestock and income. With more recent outbreaks of a highly pathogenic A(H5) variant in 10 countries of the Americas, PAHO circulated an epidemiological alert on 11 January. By March, the disease had spread to 14 countries across the region, with the first human case reported in Ecuador.

Bird Flu and Poverty

Bird flu can have a detrimental impact on those living in poverty. A research study funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, which explored the relationship between poultry and poverty in Vietnam, found that “poultry is in fact very much a livestock asset of the poor.” In Vietnam, as in other countries, much of the rural population depends upon poultry for sustenance and income. According to the study, poultry is both “an important source of protein” and “an investment” that “yields extremely high returns.”

Bird flu can therefore be devastating for small-scale poultry farmers. They face, not only a higher risk of infection and transmission but also lack the resources needed to prevent and treat infections among their livestock. A report by the World Bank shows that the spread of bird flu could disproportionately impact low- and middle-income countries. The report estimates that if 12% of domestic birds died from bird flu worldwide, low- and middle-income countries would see a GDP reduction of 0.4%, even though global GDP would shrink by just 0.1%. The spread of bird flu would particularly affect Latin America and the Caribbean, causing a cumulative GDP reduction of 0.7%.


With attendees from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, the PAHO-hosted meeting in Rio de Janeiro provided an opportunity to collaborate to protect the region’s most vulnerable. Dr. Manuel Sánchez Vázquez, a Veterinary Epidemiology Advisor at PANAFTOSA, said, “it is crucial that public and animal health sectors carry out joint risk analyses to establish mitigation strategies.” There were several recommendations for reducing the risk of regional bird flu transmission. These included increasing monitoring and surveillance; enforcing proper hygiene standards; and creating “national technical commissions for information exchange and analysis between ministries of health, agriculture and environment.”

PAHO regularly organizes such meetings to strategize plans for responding to zoonotic diseases. The Ministerial Level Inter-American Meeting on Health and Agriculture, for instance, provides an ongoing regional forum to discuss threats such as the bird flu and collaborate in prevention and response planning.

The WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) also supports global influenza surveillance and mitigation. With institutions in 125 WHO member states, GISRS provides guidelines, alerts and monitoring mechanisms to ensure a high level of global readiness to respond to threats of influenza.

The WHO also works to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected in times of need. It has secured 10% of the global supply of pandemic flu vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. It is negotiating with manufacturers to secure 20% of the global supply of vaccines for other types of pandemics.

Bird flu is a virus that can be lethal to humans and animals alike. While the threat of bird flu is real, there are proactive measures and cooperative efforts that can be taken to mitigate its effects. With the right strategies in place, more lives and livelihoods can be saved from this potentially deadly virus.

Siddhant Bhatnagar
Photo: Flickr

Noncommunicable Diseases
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) occur due to “genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioral factors.” They are not diseases you can get after touching or being in close contact with someone, but they occur after getting a communicable virus or illness that develops. Common NCDs are cardiovascular diseases, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases. In developing nations, NCDs cause 41 million deaths (74% of all deaths globally) per year. NCDs affect all people, but primarily those who have unhealthy diets, are physically inactive, smoke or excessively drink alcohol. The risks are higher in developing nations where unhealthy lifestyles such as high blood pressure, glucose, fat in the blood and obesity have become more prominent.

3 Deadliest Noncommunicable Diseases

  1. Cardiovascular Disease: This is the deadliest noncommunicable disease. Poor diet and a lack of physical activity are the leading causes of this disease. One can also inherit cardiovascular disease. This can lead to an increase in blood pressure, glucose and weight gain. When not treated, cardiovascular disease can progress into heart attacks and strokes, along with diseases that affect one’s arteries, and blood flow such as coronary artery disease and congenital heart disease.
  2. Cancer: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people can avoid up to 50% of cancers with a healthier lifestyle, such as reducing their intake of tobacco and alcohol and getting immunizations for infections that could cause cancer. Cancer is the second deadliest noncommunicable disease, and lung, liver, stomach, colorectal, prostate, cervical and breast are the most common cancers.
  3. Chronic Respiratory Diseases: These diseases affect the airways and lungs, causing breathing difficulty. Besides inheriting, unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking, also lead to chronic respiratory diseases. Environmental factors play a huge part too. Exposure to air pollution and poor air quality and ventilation can increase the chances of contracting a respiratory disease. Without proper treatment, people can develop more severe diseases such as cystic fibrosis, pulmonary hypotension, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Looking Ahead

While people can treat these deadliest noncommunicable diseases, many developing nations cannot afford treatment and lack adequate professional health services. Noncommunicable diseases are long-lasting and can cause suffering with symptoms constantly worsening. According to WHO, every two seconds, a noncommunicable disease kills someone under the age of 70. Currently, 14 of 194 countries that NCDs affect are on target to reach “sustainable development goals” and decrease mortality rates by 2030, preventing nearly 30 million deaths. However, only 5% of outside support goes toward preventing and controlling NCDs, where they are often “overlooked and underfunded.”

To detect, screen and treat NCDs, professional health care services need a drastic improvement. The Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030 focuses on the role of governments and stakeholders in reducing and monitoring risk factors and building policies accordingly. For instance, many sectors, such as finance, education and agriculture, need improvement to prevent and control NCDs. In 2019, WHO extended the Global Action Plan from 2013 to 2030 and set nine global targets.

NCDs Around the World

According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), 550 million people globally are reported to suffer from cardiovascular disease (CVD) as of 2019. Asia and Australasia account for 310 million of these cases, with Uzbekistan recording the highest mortality rate. WHO has a focused plan on all NCDs affecting Uzbekistan. As part of its cost-effective preventative measures, the government has tightened laws regarding the use of tobacco as well as salt and alcohol consumption. In addition, there are campaigns to encourage people to become more physically active. Screenings for CVD and diabetes will see an improvement as well as treatment for those who are high risk, new cases and ongoing cases.

In 2020, there were 18,094,716 cancer cases across the globe, with Denmark topping the list in terms of the number of cases. However, the highest mortality rates were in Mongolia. WHO’s 2020 to 2024 plan for decreasing cervical cancer has three primary targets: to vaccinate 90% of girls aged 15 against HPV, to screen 70% of women twice by 35 to 45 with 90% of treatment and support managing 90% of women who have invasive cervical cancer.

Possible Solutions

Globally, 545 million people suffered from a chronic respiratory disease in 2017, according to The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, which has seen an increase of 39.8% compared to 1990. COPD and asthma are the leading causes of mortality rates, especially in South Asia.

In order to diagnose NCDs, the fundamental factors require improvement first. For example, improving NCD data, research capacity and funding such as collaborating with other countries and organizations to produce better services, creating factually-correct strategies, and improving health technology. While there is no treatment-based plan, following SDG Target 3.4 could reduce one-third of premature deaths by 2030.

– Deanna Barratt
Photo: Flickr

Foodborne Illnesses in Africa
With approximately 41% of the African population experiencing poverty, access to food is a persistent struggle. Poor food quality often accompanies food scarcity and both can lead to foodborne illnesses. According to NPR, Africa has the highest per-capita rate of foodborne illnesses in the world. Here are five facts about foodborne illnesses in Africa.

5 Facts About Foodborne Illnesses in Africa

  1. Children are the most affected by foodborne illnesses. Children, especially under the age of five, are at an increased risk of contracting a foodborne illness.  Since their immune systems are not fully developed yet, it is also more difficult for children to fight off illnesses, particularly if they do not have access to high-quality health services.
  2. Lack of refrigeration is an underlying cause of foodborne illness. In rural villages in the Eastern Cape of Africa, many families do not have access to a refrigerator or electricity. As a result, they have to buy food daily to ensure that it does not perish. This becomes expensive, however, and is not sustainable for a low-income family. Therefore, many of these families resort to keeping food that would otherwise require refrigeration out in the open. Bacteria on food grows fastest in temperatures ranging from 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, doubling about every 20 minutes. Given that average temperatures in Africa fall within that range, Africans who do not have the means to buy a refrigerator are more prone to developing foodborne illnesses.
  3. The transportation of food in Africa is also a significant factor. A majority of Africans get their food through informal markets. The food that arrives at these markets typically originates from smallholder farms, but the safety standards during transportation are not always strictly enforced. Food contamination can happen during food production, delivery and consumption. In Africa, where food often travels long distances in hot climates without adequate packaging, contamination is more likely.
  4. Many African governments do not possess the resources to regulate food safety risks. Since Africa suffers from hunger and malnutrition, governments place an emphasis on delivering as much food as possible to those lacking it. This sometimes leads to a greater focus on quantity than quality. During hunger crises, although governments deliver food in a widespread manner, it can cause more harm if the food is contaminated. Without the resources necessary to regulate food safety, many African governments rely on international organizations that provide policy guidance and training.
  5. Africa’s food system is becoming more industrialized. While diets in Africa used to be rich in grains, many diets now primarily contain vegetables, meat and dairy products. These foods are more likely to require refrigeration, increasing the likelihood of contamination. Additionally, as more diverse diets are incorporated, there is the threat of new illnesses emerging. Underfunded clinics often lack the knowledge and resources to adequately diagnose foodborne illnesses and the emergence of new illnesses may worsen the diagnosis process.

Looking Ahead

Despite having a high rate of foodborne illnesses, progress is being made in Africa. The African Union is working to implement a continent-wide food safety authority. The initiative is set to emerge in the next year and will focus on increasing food safety protocols in markets and factories.

An organization called Harvest Plus uses a food-based approach to tackle hunger and agricultural needs by adding micronutrients to food. Through a process called biofortification, farmers add vitamins and minerals to everyday crops to sustainably bridge the gap between agriculture and nutrition. By targeting vulnerable populations around the world, the organization ensures food security in a nutritious and safe manner. Harvest Plus is confident that with consistent efforts, 1 billion people can have access to biofortified foods by 2030.

Sarah Frances
Photo: Flickr