Edgy in Egypt: Bird Flu Worries Egg Fan

Egypt birds

CRS helps impoverished Egyptians prevent deadly bird flu by educating women poultry raisers about the disease. It also runs vaccination campaigns. Photo by CRS staff

Until I moved to Cairo, I was never scared of eggs. They were incredible, edible. Plenty of protein in a little white package. What’s not to like?

I am now very, very afraid of eggs. I don’t cook with them much, and when I do, I spend quite a while cleaning their suspect gunky shells with surgical precision-rinsing, gently scrubbing them, soaking them in a water-vinegar solution-all with thick gloves on. Making Duncan Hines brownies from a box (yes, they sell it here) takes a lot longer than it used to.

Egypt is one of the top three countries on the world watch list for avian influenza, a strain of flu that can leap from sick birds to humans if the humans are in close enough contact with poultry. It’s not just a flu that knocks you out with fever and keeps you home from work for a week; it’s deadly. Approximately 60 people have contracted bird flu in Egypt since February 2006, and of those, more than a third died from it. The scenarios that scientists paint of a worldwide epidemic remind me of a Stephen King novel.

Since February of this year, several more bird flu cases have been reported in Egypt, mostly in poor farming communities where chickens may have the run of a family’s house. Raising poultry is one way that rural residents are able to feed their families and earn a living. In many Egyptian villages, at least two-thirds of women are solely dependent on the income they earn from it.

Poultry clinic

Egypt is one of the top three countries on the world watch list for the spread of bird flu. As of March 2009, 60 cases of humans contracting bird flu have been recorded in Egypt. Photo by CRS staff

Typically, the birds and humans live too close for comfort. Chickens, ducks or geese may nest under a bed. They may trot through the family’s cooking area. Little kids chase the birds around the yard, stepping in feathers and bird feces, which carry especially high concentrations of the virus. Chickens kept in rooftop areas are likely to have contact with wild birds that can carry disease. Sometimes birds that have died of the disease are thrown in the streets or in canals used for washing clothes, which contributes to the spread of the virus.

CRS is working with Egyptian women-who usually are the ones taking care of the family’s poultry-to prevent the spread of the disease. Funded by the United Nations Development Program, CRS runs awareness campaigns teaching women to wear different clothes and shoes when working with birds; to wear gloves if they have them; and to wash their hands thoroughly after. The program encourages women to keep the birds away from rooftops and wild birds, and not to let the birds run in areas, like the street, where humans walk. It warns mothers to keep their birds away from children; in the virus’ most recent flareup, several of those infected have been toddlers.

CRS also helps women use the free vaccination kits provided by the Egyptian government, which some women were concerned about trying. Through its microfinance program, CRS offers women small loans to either develop their flocks-or, if they don’t have a safe setup for poultry, to start other home-based businesses like bakeries.

The program is working: my colleague Mohamed Ashraf reports that of the 6000 women we’ve helped, not one woman or her family have contracted the disease. With some vigilance and a lot of hand-washing, we hope to keep it at bay.

– Laura Sheahen, CRS regional information officer

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