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Bird flu outbreaks in Indonesia going unstudied

July 28, 2006 By Declan Butler This article courtesy of Nature News.

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Nature has learned that very few if any avian flu samples from Indonesian birds have been sent to official labs for sequencing over the past year.

The data blackout comes just as surveys of the country are revealing a startling number of previously unrecognized avian outbreaks.

"We have had no sequence data from poultry viruses for Indonesia for almost a year, since last August," says Peter Roeder, a consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Indonesia. "It just happened; no one was sending any samples," he says.

Experts say that without thorough genetic sequencing of bird viruses from the area it is difficult to tell whether the virus is mutating, or how the human cases correspond to birds in the area. There have been some human viruses found in Java that so far have no obvious avian counterparts: perhaps simply because matching strains in birds have not been sequenced, or perhaps not.

Good news?

Only now has a batch of such samples finally arrived at the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reference library in Geelong, Australia. "Good news: more than 100 animal isolates ready to go," reads a report from an international expert consultation on combating H5N1 in Indonesia, held in Jakarta in late June. Some 91 of these samples have now arrived, says Roeder.

This activity may have been spurred by the limited human-to-human spread of H5N1 seen within a family in Kubu Sembelang in May this year. Scientists are keen to compare the human viruses with previous avian outbreaks in the area, but no such recent samples have been available.

Reporting of poultry results from Indonesia is "inadequate", with "specimens going into a 'black box'", read the Jakarta meeting documents, adding that "this lack of information on avian H5N1 viruses requires urgent attention."

"Over the next few months there will be quite intensive genetic analysis of the samples," says Roeder. "This is something we really have to get on top of."

Under surveillance

It has been difficult to organize sampling in Indonesia, Roeder says, with a decentralized system of responsibility for collecting viral material in a country spread over some 6,000 inhabited islands, with many backyard farms.

But that seems to be improving. There is an Indonesian government strategic plan, being assisted by the FAO, to create a large, coordinated surveillance and control programme around the country. A pilot scheme involving 12 teams has been running in the area around Jakarta since January this year.

The results of that pilot have proven startling. The Jakarta teams alone have discovered an average of 24 previously unknown infected locations a week between January and May. "The community surveillance system is starting to work," says Roeder.

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