No country is fully prepared for a 1918-like pandemic influenza. Averting a pandemic of H5N1 influenza virus depends on the successful control of its endemicity, outbreaks in poultry and occasional spillage into human which carries a case-fatality rate of over 50%. The use of perimetric depopulation and vaccination has failed to halt the spread of the epidemic. Blanket vaccination for all poultry over a large geographical area is difficult. A combination of moratorium, segregation of water fowls from chickens and vaccination have been proved to be effective in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) since 2002 despite endemicity and outbreaks in neighbouring regions. Systematic surveillance in southern China showed that ducks and geese are the primary reservoirs which transmit the virus to chickens, minor poultry and even migratory birds.
Presentation of the hypothesis
We hypothesize that this combination of moratorium, poultry segregation and targeted vaccination if successfully adapted to an affected district or province in any geographical region with high endemicity would set an example for the control in other regions.
Testing the hypothesis
A planned one-off moratorium of 3 weeks at the hottest month of the year should decrease the environmental burden as a source of re-infection. Backyard farms will then be re-populated by hatchlings from virus-free chickens and minor poultry only. Targeted immunization of the ducks and geese present only in the industrial farms and also the chickens would be strictly implemented as blanket immunization of all backyard poultry is almost impossible. Freely grazing ducks and geese would not be allowed until neutralizing antibodies of H5 subtype virus is achieved. As a proof of concept, a simple mathematical model with susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR) structure of coupled epidemics between aquatic birds (mainly ducks and geese) and chickens was used to estimate transmissibility within and between these two poultry populations. In the field the hypothesis is tested by prospective surveillance of poultry and immunocompetent patients hospitalized for severe pneumonia for the virus before and after the institution of these measures.
Implications of the Hypothesis
A combination of targeted immunization with the correct vaccine, segregation of poultry species and moratorium of poultry in addition to the present surveillance, biosecurity and hygienic measures at the farm, market and personal levels could be important in the successful control of the H5N1 virus in poultry and human for an extensive geographical region with continuing outbreaks. Alternatively a lesser scale of intervention at the district level can be considered if there is virus detection without evidence of excess poultry deaths since asymptomatic shedding is common in waterfowls.