/ 12 August 2008

New bird-flu strain detected in Nigeria

Scientists have detected for the first time in Nigeria a new strain of the virus that causes avian influenza — also known as bird flu — a United Nations agency announced on Tuesday.

The find comes in the wake of Nigeria recently reporting two new highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in the states of Katsina and Kano, the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

”The detection of a new avian influenza virus strain in Africa raises serious concerns as it remains unknown how this strain has been introduced to the continent,” said Scott Newsman, an international wildlife coordinator with the FAO animal health service.

Laboratory results from Nigeria and a FAO reference laboratory in Italy show that the newly discovered virus strain is genetically different from the strains that circulated in Nigeria during earlier outbreaks in 2006 and 2007.

The new strain, which has never been reported before in Africa, is more similar to strains previously identified in Europe (Italy), Asia (Afghanistan) and the Middle East (Iran) in 2007, the FAO said.

”It seems to be unlikely that wild birds have carried the strain to Africa, since the last migration of wild birds from Europe and Central Asia to Africa occurred in September 2007 and this year’s southerly migration into Africa has not really started yet,” Newman said.

”It could well be that there are other channels for virus introduction: international trade, for example, or illegal and unreported movement of poultry. This increases the risk of avian influenza spread to other countries in Western Africa,” he added.

”FAO greatly appreciates Nigeria’s swift reporting and sharing of the relevant information about this new virus strain,” FAO chief veterinary officer Joseph Domenech said.

Since the avian influenza epidemic caused by the H5N1 strain started five years ago in Asia, the disease has affected more than 60 countries. In Nigeria, the virus was first confirmed in February 2006 and infected poultry in 25 states before being contained.

”Many countries have succeeded in getting the virus under control, but as long as avian influenza remains endemic in some countries, the international community needs to be on alert. Both at risk and affected countries have to keep a high level of surveillance,” Domenech said. — Sapa-dpa