Tracking bird flu in Nigeria

world | Dec 09, 2006 | By IRIN 

In the small, dusty village of Birnin Yero all of Ibrahim Alkeri’s eight chickens have died in the past month.

Some of his neighbours have also lost their fowl. It could be a seasonal flu that often affects birds during the cool, dry months, some villagers say. Others fear the return of the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus that decimated their poultry stock 11 months ago.

“The chickens were all I had,” said an old woman who gave her name as Amina. “Because I'm too old to go to the farm, I usually sold the fowl to buy some grain for myself and my grandchildren. But I lost all,” she said, referring to the January outbreak.

Birnin Yero is next to Sambawa Farms in northern Kaduna State where Africa's first case of bird flu was discovered early this year. Across Africa, bird flu has hit Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, hardest. It has also been found in several other African countries, including Niger, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan and Djibouti.

With the potential for new outbreaks, the Nigerian Agriculture Ministry, backed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the European Union, has set up a new surveillance scheme to help track avian flu across the country.

Some 600 Nigerian animal health officers have been trained and equipped with protective clothing to carry out tests in poultry farms and villages across the country in the coming weeks, according to Junaid Maina, Nigeria's director of livestock and pest control.

Poultry go unchecked

Delegates to an international conference on avian flu held in Mali this week warned that poor surveillance in developing countries could lead to large-scale outbreaks of the virus that could destroy poultry and livelihoods. Health experts also want to stem the spread of avian flu to prevent the virus from mutating to a form that can easily pass between humans and possibly kill millions of people worldwide.

After the first cases of bird flu were discovered at Sambawa Farms in January, the virus appeared to have spread quickly through Birnin Yero and to other regions of Nigeria. In the next eight months H5N1 was reported in 14 of Nigeria's 36 states.

“While in some states the virus disappeared, in some others, like Kaduna and Lagos, there were renewed outbreaks,” said Timothy Obi, who heads the FAO’s bird flu team in Nigeria. “We don't know if it is re-infection or continuation of previous outbreaks.”

The last officially confirmed cases of avian flu were reported near Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, in September. But veterinary officials are unwilling to give Nigeria a clean bill of health because many vulnerable places across the country, such as Birnin Yero, have yet to be carefully checked for the virus.

Nigeria responded to the initial outbreaks with massive culling. Nearly one million birds have been slaughtered across the country by government veterinary teams, mostly on big commercial farms. The government has so far rejected the use of vaccines, although large-scale poultry farmers are privately buying them.

Compensation after the outbreaks earlier this year was paid mainly to the big commercial farms because they were the ones that complied with official requirements reporting and culling by government veterinary teams. But even the compensation process has run into problems, with payments stopped in July after the government department in charge ran out of funds, Maina said.

Poverty inspires fear

How to effectively provide compensation to poultry farmers was high on the agenda at the Mali conference. International agencies were trying to raise up to US $1 billion to help fund the fight against bird flu and were pledged US $475 million on Friday. Much of that is expected to go to Africa.

Animal health workers see compensation as key to encouraging reporting of poultry deaths, and fear its shortcomings may

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