Saudi bans US poultry as bird flu spreads

By Eliot Beer

- Last updated on GMT

The CDC has not ruled out a risk to humans
The CDC has not ruled out a risk to humans

Related tags: Saudi arabia, Influenza, Us

Saudi Arabia has widened its ban on US poultry imports, blocking birds from 13 states, as hundreds of cases of H5N2 bird flu are reported.

The US states join the Canadian province of Ontario, and the country of Bhutan, as facing poultry bans in Saudi Arabia, the second-largest importer of broiler meat in the world. To date the US has seen more than 200 outbreaks of the H5N2 strain of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, which has killed or forced the slaughter of more than 45 million birds.

Temporary ban

Currently poultry meat, eggs, their products, and equipment used to handle poultry, cannot be imported from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa, in addition to Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas, which received bans in April. The Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) has said the ban is temporary, and does not apply to products which have been heat-treated.

Other Gulf countries have also banned poultry imports from certain countries. Kuwait blocked British birds in December last year, while the UAE banned imports of all birds, living or dead, and bird-derived products from the UK, Netherlands and Germany in November, adding Italy in February, this time because of the H5N8 strain of flu.

While the risk to humans from these current virus strains remains mostly theoretical, the diseases are highly infectious among birds. Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are keen to protect their domestic poultry stocks from strains that have spread across large parts of countries such as the US in a matter of months.

Minimal human risk

The H5 variants of the disease, also known as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), are derived from the influenza A virus, which can affect a large number of animals, including humans. The H5N1 strain emerged in Asia in 2003, reaching Europe two years later, with a number of other strains – very few of which are dangerous to humans – emerging across the world.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) official advisory on H5 viruses states: “No human infections with these viruses have been detected at this time, however similar viruses have infected people in other countries and caused serious illness and death in some cases. Human infections with other avian influenza viruses have occurred after close and prolonged contact with infected birds or the excretions/secretions of infected birds (e.g., droppings, oral fluids)​.”

The CDC does not rule out a risk to humans: “While the health risk posed to the general public by these domestic HPAI outbreaks is low at this time, it is possible that human infections with these viruses may occur​.”

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