Bird-flu shock gives way to false sense of security

At the Costain livestock market in Nigeria’s biggest city of Lagos, chicken buyers are again waiting while boys in their early teens slaughter, clean and cut up birds for them to take home.

The sight had all but disappeared in the first shock that followed the discovery of Africa’s first cases of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in Nigeria in February. Across West Africa there are many who think the danger is over or consider it too distant to be of serious concern.

But since its first appearance in northern Nigeria, the H5N1 strain—which experts worry could be the source of a human pandemic—has been making its way around the country and been reported in five other countries on the continent: Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Niger, the last four in Nigeria’s West African neighbourhood.

Sudan, Egypt’s neighbour to the south, has also reported the H5-subtype of bird flu, although tests are still ongoing to determine whether it is H5N1.

Experts want to keep a close eye on H5N1, but it is especially difficult to monitor in Africa, a continent with poor communications and other infrastructure. Some experts worry H5N1 has spread further than is known in Africa.

“It is dangerous to adopt that attitude” that bird flu is no more a danger, said William Amanfu, animal health officer for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome.

Acknowledging widespread misperceptions about bird flu, Amanfu said greater effort is necessary to inform people about a disease that is worrisome but still can be contained.

“People will have to continue to adopt the strategies and procedures outlined for preventing spread of the virus,” he said.

The word is not getting out.

“We can only thank God the bird-flu palaver is over,” said Ibrahim Hassan, a 37-year-old government official, as he waited for his chicken to be cleaned beneath the concrete bridge where the makeshift chicken market is set up daily. “We can now eat chicken and poultry products and, most importantly, I can raise chickens and sell them again.”

“I only eat chicken from this country, never imported, so I don’t think about it [bird flu],” said Ismael Ba, a businessman in Senegal’s capital, Dakar.

Nasiru Maikaji, a chicken seller in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano, said only the elite boycotted chicken menus when news of bird flu broke.

“Ordinary people like me still came to buy because they knew that the disease did not affect our local chicken,” Maikaji said.

Those who kill chickens for buyers at the Costain market in Lagos do so without gloves, on improvised slabs made of wooden tables. The gore and waste water produced in the process are emptied into an open drain next to the railway line.

Authorities in the region insist they are doing what is required.

Apart from a campaign to educate the populace about bird flu, the Nigerian government has set up 117 surveillance points across the country taking samples and checking birds for signs of the virus, said Junaidu Maina, the national director of livestock.

“The whole situation is a bit quiet now” apart from active cases in a few states, he said.

Yet many traders interviewed said they have yet to be stopped by livestock officials as they move their birds around the country.

Neighbouring Niger has undertaken a massive slaughter of birds and launched a campaign to educate local poultry farmers and the public about bird flu, officials said.

Mali, a major poultry producer in West Africa, so far has not reported bird flu. The government has banned all poultry imports and officials say they are working to create awareness about the virus.

Poultry sellers in Mali say the demand for chicken as food and for slaughter in ritual sacrifice remains high.

International health experts fear that in Africa, where free-roaming chickens constitute the dominant population of poultry, there is a greater risk of spreading the virus, increasing animal-to-human infections and bringing the world closer to the dreaded jump of the virus to a strain transmissible among humans.

While efforts are being made to inform people about the importance of washing hands and disinfecting their clothing after contact with poultry, and not mixing chicken with other bird species such as ducks, widespread poverty in the region often gets in the way of the way of real-life application of the knowledge.

Bird flu is “basically an animal disease and people get it through infected animals”, said the FAO’s Amanfu. “If we can stop the infection in animals, particularly poultry, we can stop it from infecting humans.”—Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporters Heidi Vogt in Dakar, Senegal; Bashir Adigun in Abuja and Oloche Samuel in Kano, Nigeria; Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger; and Sadio Kante in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report



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