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Fast Response to HPAI Outbreak Avoids Economic Losses in the Congo

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At the end of May 2017, the Congo (DRC) was faced with what appeared to be its first-ever outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Rapid confirmation was critical. Animal and public health officials needed to know if it really was the avian influenza virus, and, if so, which strain of the virus was present. The Central Veterinary Laboratory in Kinshasa, the capital city, was prepared with sampling and testing protocols to deal with the emergency. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division had previously provided the lab with diagnostic equipment and training for staff both in the lab and in the field. Thus, when samples from the outbreak area were brought for analysis, the lab was prepared, and it quickly determined that, yes, it was avian flu. Although it would take more time to find out exactly what strain was present, the veterinary service activated a precautionary response programme. While previous outbreaks in Africa had meant the loss of millions of birds, the fast reaction in the Congo meant the outbreak was contained with minimal poultry losses and no human casualties.

When DRC’s Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) in Kinshasa received notice of significant unexplained duck mortality in the Ituri area, which borders Uganda, the logistics could not have been worse. There was suspicion that the mortality was due to avian influenza but samples had to be gathered and taken on a 1 000 km journey across bad roads to the lab for testing. As it happened, CVL was well prepared to deal with this potential emergency.

Many laboratories in Africa and Asia have insufficient infrastructure and capacity to perform diagnosis on major transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases and have to send their samples to external reference laboratories for diagnosis. This creates a delay in diagnosis and implementation of control measures that gives the disease time to spread.

However, thanks to staff training and equipment that had been received from the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, CVL, as part of the VETLAB Network of 44 African and 19 Asian participating countries, was able to set up a rapid diagnosis response. It had trained field staff in the Ituri area who knew how to collect and transport the samples correctly, and the lab itself had the appropriate equipment and reagents on hand as well as the qualified staff to conduct the necessary polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostic tests to determine what virus they were dealing with.

Previously, laboratory tests took weeks, but now, with the acquired skills and VETLAB support, the detection and diagnosis at CVL took only a few hours. In all, CVL was able to send confirmation back to the affected field services that, indeed, it was avian influenza. It then was necessary to determine exactly which strain of the virus was present – high or low pathogenic – a step that requires genetic sequencing.

Joint Division offers access to gene sequencing

Using genetic sequencing procedures in Member State labs requires big investments in specific equipment, consumables and training for relatively low sample loads. In order to offer Member State’s labs access to such services through an external provider, the Joint Division provides counterpart laboratories with instructions on how to prepare the samples for submission, evaluate their quality, ship them using rapid post services and receive the results within 24 hours, as well as protocols for interpretation of the obtained results and sharing the data on public genomic databases. The sequencing service is funded by the Joint Division and is part of the VETLAB Network activities.

So, even as CVL sent its samples to the Joint Division’s genetic sequencing provider, the veterinary service at the CVL and in the affected region had already moved ahead. Taking precautionary steps, it enacted its response protocol, which called for alerting regional and international authorities that the disease was present, implementing trade restrictions and culling poultry in the infected villages and the farms.

When the genetic test results came back, they confirmed CVL’s initial diagnosis and also determined that it was indeed the highly pathogenic strain. Because of the quick response of the laboratory and the veterinary service, the infection was contained in one single administrative district and the last case was observed in July – just two months after it began. In addition to containing losses, the country greatly minimized an outbreak that could have had an enormous economic impact on the country and the region, especially considering that more than 8 million birds had been lost due to HPAI infection in Africa in the previous four years.

If this had happened just a few years earlier, the veterinary service would have had to send the initial sample to Europe or America for testing – a very expensive and timeconsuming process. Now, with its own laboratory able to handle the initial diagnoses, and with rapid access provided to the external genetic sequencing services, DRC saved money – but above all, it saved time, which is so important when trying to stave off the spread of an epidemic.

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