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Bird flu reaches Africa

February 9, 2006 By Declan Butler This article courtesy of Nature News.

Experts fear poverty and lack of infrastructure may spread disease.

The H5NI avian flu virus has broken out in battery farms of poultry in Nigeria; it's the first time the disease has been reported in Africa.

H5N1 spread from birds in Asia to flocks in Eurasia last summer. Its appearance in Africa marks a massive leap in the geographical extension of the virus's range

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a statement warning that unless it is strictly controlled, H5N1 can easily become endemic in poultry. They add that experience shows that wherever there is disease in poultry, there is inevitably the risk of human cases. That risk is high in Nigeria, and in many parts of Africa, because backyard poultry farms are common.

The arrival of H5N1 in Africa is a scenario experts have long dreaded, as poverty and lack of infrastructure make control much more difficult. Detection is hard enough in richer countries, experts note. Recent outbreaks in poultry in Turkey were detected and reported only after surveillance was stepped up following the occurrence of human cases.

Few African countries have surveillance systems for H5N1. The outbreak in Jaji village in the northern Kaduna state of Nigeria, which killed 40,000 battery chickens, in fact began on 10 January, but was only reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in the first week of February. The owner of the farm, which also houses ostriches and geese, initially treated the sick flocks with antibiotics. These drugs are useless against viral infections.

On the wing?

It is still unclear whether the new outbreak has been caused by virus carried by migratory birds from Eurasia, or by the trade and movement of poultry or poultry products, says Joseph Domenech, the chief veterinary officer of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Circumstantial evidence points to Nigeria being a destination of several migrant birds from Eurasia. But migratory birds have been flying into Africa from Eurasia for much of the autumn, so if they are to blame, it is odd that many more outbreaks have not been seen across the vast swathes of Africa where they overwinter (see ' Migration threatens to send flu south'). In most of the cases worldwide, trade has been the agent of spread.

Ongoing sequencing of the virus by the OIE/FAO reference laboratory for avian flu in Padova, Italy, should throw some light on the geographic origins of the strain involved. Both agencies have also dispatched a team of experts to the area, to get a better picture of the extent and spread of the disease, and to advise on control measures. Die-offs of poultry have recently been reported in the next door province of Kano.

If the virus has spread to backyard farms, the WHO will launch public-information campaigns to warn of high-risk behaviours, including the slaughtering or butchering of diseased birds. But such an operation will face challenges such as poor literacy and difficulty in distributing information.

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