Belize free from avian influenza; false positive test results reported

Photo: Armando Cowo, Director, Belize Poultry Association

While recent negative test results from reference labs in the United States suggest that early results indicating the presence of avian flu were false positives, the Minister of Agriculture and the Belize Poultry Association say culling birds on the affected farms was the proactive and responsible response to the test results.

by Khaila Gentle

BELIZE CITY, Wed 9th November 2022

Reports earlier this week revealed that there may have been no cases of bird flu in the country. Indeed, confirmatory tests sent to the National Veterinary Services Lab in Iowa, USA – the reference laboratory for the World Organization for Animal Health – came back negative, suggesting that the first positive results tests, which came from the University of Georgia Poultry Development and Research Center (PDRC), were false positives.

“There are no viruses here,” said Armando Cowo, the director of the Belize Poultry Association, in an interview with our colleagues at KREM News this week.

Readers will recall the bird flu scare in September which led BAHA and the Ministry of Agriculture to implement measures to prevent the potential spread of the disease, including controlling the movement of poultry and poultry products from farms suspected of being infected, by strengthening surveillance of farms, and in particular the depopulation of birds on farms from which samples were taken which produced positive test results.

In a ALMOND article dated Thursday, September 15, 2022, we reported that, for the first time in nearly seven years, an outbreak of avian flu has been identified in the country, specifically in the poultry population of a farm in the community of Blue Creek. Two weeks earlier, the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) sent samples to the University of Georgia. These samples tested positive for avian influenza (avian flu), and so, knowing that the disease is one of the most serious poultry diseases – and one with zoonotic potential – BAHA adopted its plan to emergency response, fueled by a sense of urgency.

As of mid-September, BAHA’s mitigation strategies had been approved by Cabinet and were being implemented, but confirmatory test results, along with genetic sequencing results, from the International Reference Laboratory of Iowa were still pending.

This week, it was confirmed that those NVSL tests in Iowa came back negative, suggesting that the initial test results were false positives.

In September, Armando Cowo and the Poultry Association, while praising BAHA for their quick response, expressed their view that the health authority may have acted too quickly. Cowo had suggested that authorities wait for confirmation from NVSL before implementing drastic control measures like depopulation, which would ultimately lead to losses in the industry. He had advised that, in accordance with scientific protocol, BAHA should wait until he received final confirmation from the reference laboratory. The association, however, ultimately supported BAHA’s decision due to the fact that confirmatory results were taking too long and time was running out. Even now, Cowo says that while there may have been losses (which would total $100,000), BAHA made the right decision by being proactive.

“We know for a fact that the process took a while, and if it was positive, positive, and we were still waiting for those results, then we would have had bigger problems,” he said.

The depopulation of the birds would have resulted in losses of $100,000. More than 24,000 birds from a farm in Blue Creek were killed, along with another 4,000 from a farm in Spanish Lookout. But the Minister of Agriculture, the Hon. Jose Abelardo Mai says that, despite the losses, it was better to act quickly rather than wait a month for confirming results.

“You have to understand how science behaves. We are guided by science. When we sent those samples to Georgia, they came back positive. Two tests were carried out and they came back positive. Subsequently, I understood that another test had been carried out by another laboratory and that it was a false positive. But we can’t wait for laboratory confirmation a month later to act. If this is a disease that threatens the entire poultry industry, we must act. And so BAHA, as the front line of animal health and plant health, had to make some very tough decisions,” he said.

In agreement with Minister Mai is Mr. Armando Cowo.

“We have to be careful. It’s a deadly disease and we didn’t want it in the country…you have to take action. You can’t wait. These labs don’t just work for us, they have samples from everywhere. You join the line and you don’t know when you’ll get your results,” Cowo said.

Notably, Cowo also expressed support for some type of arrangement to compensate farmers who suffered losses as a result of the depopulation exercise.

“A farmer lost 24,100 birds. The other farmer lost 4,000 birds, and the third farmer was a laying hen farm, laying hens providing eggs — he lost 2,240 birds. That’s about 30,000 birds, and they have value. Just in the cost of these birds that we’re looking at, over $100,000 lost, and some people might say a hundred thousand dollars for the industry isn’t a lot, but for individual farmers…and we hope that one way or another, somewhere we can get money to help out these people… The law says so, the minister in charge of agriculture can compensate. It’s discretionary, and what we’re trying to do is try to prepare a document to make a policy change, because if you lose $100,000 would you call the authority and tell them that the next time you have a problem — “hey guys, I have a problem” and lose another $100,000 or $200,000? It is food for thought. So to encourage farmers to report, we need to find a mechanism by which we can work with government and the private sector, help those farmers get back on their feet, so that every time another alert is triggered, those fellows will cooperate with us,” Cowo told 7News’ Jules Vasquez.

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