I SPEND most of my mornings seated at a window where a vast number of birds of various species and sizes flitter past or stop and tap against the glass. We have a running joke that some of those birds are carrying messages from our dearly departed living in another world .
Because I have so many birds within close proximity, I took the Avian Bird Flu warnings this week pretty seriously. A friend of mine confessed that the day before the first warning she had picked up a dead bird herself, as she lives in an even busier bird corridor.
Uganda has about 1,078 species of birds (34 of which are threatened) making us a premium destination for birding, as these are more than half the number of species recorded globally. Some statistics also have it that the record for the number of species recorded in one week in a three week period is 665 – seen in Uganda.
Our poultry industry is thriving (not just because of the Rolex) though the best statistics I could find were from the UBOS (Uganda Bureau of Statistics) 2010 Report that estimated our national chicken population at 34.7million birds. A cursory check of the 2014 National Population and Housing Census finds no mention of the words ‘poultry’, ‘chicken’ or ‘bird(s)’. The word ‘Livestock’ appears only four (4) times.
The National Livestock Census Report of 2009, though, says 4.5million households rear at least one kind of livestock or poultry. By 2008 we had a national chicken flock of 32.8million birds.
And an IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) report of 2013 estimated that the value of poultry production in Uganda in 2009 was Ushs89billion. (This report also complains about lack of statistics).
So considering that Avian Bird Flu affects chicken as well as wild birds, we should not take this disease outbreak lightly. But we must not panic in our approach.
When it first appeared back in 2005 the Avian Bird Flu was devastating in Asia, and it showed up again in 2014 in the United States with alarming effects. I read somewhere once that across Asia fewer than 500 people died from having the disease, so that’s not the biggest problem – it is the economic death that is more worrying.
In the US by July 2015 (six months) about 26 million chickens and turkeys had died or been killed to keep the disease from spreading. But the US produces 9 billion chickens for meat, 360 million for eggs, and 240 million turkeys.
We cannot afford to lose such numbers.
In May 2015 the United States released US$330million in emergency funds to tackle the disease, on top of US$99million already spent on the disease when it broke out in 2014. They even deployed the National Guard to help with the efforts.
Asia’s 2005 crisis was feared to cost the affected economies between US$99billion and US$283billion off their GDP.
We certainly cannot command such amounts today.
Those economies are much more organised and focused most times, so we need to really pay attention and think like them now in some respects, while doing what we do best.
That doesn’t mean we are doing nothing – and I was happy to hear from the Director General of Health Services, Prof. Anthony Mbonye, that the government had put together an inter-ministerial task force under the Prime Minister’s office (though the Ministry Website had not been updated by January 18, 2017 with this issue). They are working with the same tenacity that has made Uganda globally famous for handling Ebola and other serious pandemics here and as far out as West Africa.
But obviously we need to do more – you and I, as well as the government.
Again, do not panic. In one of my WhatsApp groups some people swore off chicken entirely. Unless you eat unhygienic chicken, please remain calm but be cautious and health-conscious.
Then, let’s think and plan every step of this carefully – including our communication. Our first communication targets should be the people on the frontline of poultry production – farmers (including domestic, subsistence ones) and processors alike. To reach them, we must know who they are – hence the need for serious statistics and information.
Every district should pull out the stops at collecting data on where all our domestic birds are and who is raising them. When we get to the point where poultry have to be killed to stop the disease spreading, there will be a need for compensation – we all know why records are important there.
Now is the time to take all statistics seriously and keep them up to date henceforth. I’ve seen a US Department of Agriculture file on the internet that details every case of the disease along with the individual bird that died – we should have the same from two weeks ago when this crisis began.
And thereafter, let’s put our information up onto the internet so that we give the world even more confidence in our capabilities at handling these disasters; we will have a good story to tell so let’s tell it louder than the disaster announcement.
This Avian Bird Flu is not as bad as Ebola, so we will get past it for sure – but this time let’s do so in a manner that INCREASES our profile so we get more opportunities come our way while not putting our existing ones at risk.