High Risk of Bird Flu in West Africa Remains

GLOBAL - Despite prompt action, bird flu remains a risk in West Africa, it emerged from a conference on avian influenza in Sharm-El-Sheik, Egypt.
calendar icon 27 October 2008
clock icon 5 minute read

West Africa, viewed as a potentially vulnerable bird flu hot spot, has moved quickly to reduce the risk of a widespread outbreak, but porous borders remain an obstacle to wiping out the virus, according to The Guardian newspaper.

Creaking infrastructure and grinding poverty that affects large swathes of the population also complicate efforts to contain the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed 245 people since 2003 in Asia, Africa and Europe.

West African governments have found it hard to control the movement of people and animals across borders - necessary to contain the virus -- in a region where some countries are only now recovering from years of civil strife, officials say.

"The borders are porous and there are unapproved routes that people use without being seen. It is difficult," said Anna Nyamekye, Ghana's deputy minister for agriculture.

The bird flu virus, having earlier hit Asia, appeared to arrive in West Africa in 2006 and has been detected in a string of countries there including Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Ghana.

"Nigeria still has it. Togo, our direct neighbour, still has it, and on our north we are bordered by Burkina Faso which also has it. We are hemmed in," Nyamekye said.

The immediate concern for most governments dealing with bird flu is the loss of food supply, while the bigger global concern is of a possible future pandemic.

Scientists say H5N1 is steadily changing and fear it could mutate and jump between humans, threatening a much more deadly flu pandemic that experts worry could quickly sweep the world, killing tens of millions.

Experts fear poverty, inadequate medical facilities and a large unregulated farming sector in Africa could allow outbreaks to go unnoticed longer, increasing the risk of the virus mutating. But compensation plans for culled birds and strident surveillance have so far limited damage in West Africa.

"The virus in Nigeria is still there, but it is under control," Joseph Domenech, the chief veterinary officer of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told Reuters on the sidelines of a bird flu conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.

"When they had the reintroduction one month ago, it was detected and eliminated immediately," he said. "The same in the surrounding countries."

The virus is also present elsewhere in Africa, in Egypt, Sudan and Djibouti. In Egypt, it is considered endemic in the domestic bird population, and has killed 22 people.

Compensation and Cooperation

Bird flu, while present in West African poultry, has caused only one known human death there, and analysts say a concerted regional response, with international help, has lowered the risk of large-scale outbreaks despite the difficulties, continues The Guardian article.

Taking early lessons from Asian bird flu outbreaks, countries in the region quickly established compensation as a means to encourage farmers to come forward when their birds fall ill with suspected bird flu. Rural farmers are often reluctant to report an outbreak in their flocks because they fear a loss of revenue from a quarantine and culling programme, essential for stopping further spread of the virus.

Nigeria - the most populous African country and home to the biggest poultry industry in West Africa - pays market rates for all birds that die after notification of a confirmed outbreak, whether by government-imposed culling or from the virus itself.

"We won't pay for birds that died before notification. That way they have to report quickly," Nigeria's chief veterinary officer Junaidu Maina said.

Since 2006, the Nigerian government has culled 1.3 million birds and paid $5.4 million in compensation to poultry farms and owners of backyard flocks, Maina said.

Ghana, which also has a compensation programme, has made payouts dependent on adequate biosecurity on private farms. "If the cause was because the place was not clean enough, then you will pay. We have used that to force them to go by (national standards)," Nyamekye said.

China and Vietnam, two Asian countries where the virus is entrenched, both initiated mass vaccinations that appear to have halted the spread of the virus, but at huge cost that most African nations cannot afford.

North African Egypt says it cannot afford to provide compensation and instead relies on awareness-raising and free vaccinations of backyard birds. It is also seeking to minimise the live bird trade.

Most countries in West Africa now have integrated bird flu plans that involve ministries of health, agriculture, finance and communication. They also pool resources and skills for the shared fight against this looming threat to food security.

In one example, Ghanaian veterinarians travelled to Togo to provide assistance after a recent outbreak there, and samples were sent back to laboratories in Accra.

"We work in collaboration with our neighbours. If you look at the nature of our borders in West Africa, we are so close to one another," Ghana's Nyamekye told The Guardian. "We don't joke with the fact we are still at risk."

Further Reading

- You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.
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