Published on Sunday, February 12, 2006 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
Bird Flu: Experts’ Fears Realized in West Africa
by Fred Bridgland in Johannesburg
Near-panic has spread through Africa following the confirmed outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus in Nigeria that has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of chickens, turkeys and other domesticated birds.
The arrival of the H5N1 strain of bird flu from Asia fulfils one of the most dreadful fears of international experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH).
These organizations and others are sending teams of experts to Nigeria in an effort to control an outbreak that went unreported for at least four weeks from the time thousands of birds began dying at the beginning of January. Nigerian traders continue to sell sick chickens, or birds killed by the virus, in unsanitary marketplaces.
Poverty and lack of infrastructure make control more difficult in Africa than in Asia – where bird flu first struck – the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Detection is hard enough in rich countries.
Currently, only two laboratories on the African continent are able to conduct safe diagnostic tests for bird flu in animals: one in South Africa, the other in Egypt.
Few African countries have surveillance systems for H5N1. It has fallen to the WOAH reference laboratory for avian flu, in Padova, Italy, to sequence the virus as found in Nigeria. Health and agricultural systems are so weak in Africa south of the equator that all testing for bird flu in the vast region is done solely in South Africa.
“This virus might be widespread,” said Dr David Nabarro of the WHO in Geneva. “If it’s in Nigeria it might also be in other countries that are less well-equipped.”
According to UN figures, six of Nigeria’s west African neighbors are officially classified as among the poorest nations on earth and thus are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease. Their hospitals and health services are poorly equipped and government institutions are under-funded and badly organized.
In the great urban shack settlements, the homes of the overwhelming majority of modern Africans, people live in close proximity to chickens kept for food, while migrating birds flock to west Africa’s river deltas each year.
“If the situation in Nigeria gets out of control, it will have a devastating impact on the poultry population in the region,” said Samuel Jutzi, director of the FAO’s animal production and health division in Rome. “It will damage the livelihoods of millions of people and it will increase the exposure of humans to the virus.”
For the west African nations still at war or just emerging from strife, building barriers against the disease will be particularly problematic. Nigeria’s neighbor, Ivory Coast, for example, is divided in two with no health or veterinary services in place for six million people living in the rebel-held north. The infrastructure of Liberia has been totally destroyed after 20 years of civil war, and its newly elected fledgling democratic government is not yet fully in place.
Dr Lee Jong-wook, the South Korean director general of the WHO, said Nigeria had to make its number one public health priority a warning to its people about the dangers of close contact with sick or dead birds infected with H5N1.
“The vast majority of all human cases and deaths from H5N1 have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults. African health systems are already struggling to cope with people suffering from HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, malaria, respiratory infections and other infectious conditions. Human cases of H5N1 may be difficult to distinguish from other illnesses. There is no time to waste.”
© Copyright 2006 newsquest (sunday herald) limited