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Bird Flu Spreads Anxiety in West Africa


Bird flu has been identified in three West African countries. But widespread anxiety over the threat of the contagious disease has spread farther.

Komi a security guard in Deux Plateaux, one of the leafy suburbs of Ivory Coast's biggest city, Abidjan.

He brings his slingshot to work and spends most of his time looking out for birds, which he shoots out of the trees with small rocks and usually eats.

But Komi has not picked off a bird for several weeks.

He says he does not kill birds anymore because he is scared of bird flu. He says the birds can fly very far and may have brought the flu to Ivory Coast. You never know, he says, so he has stopped eating them, even though they are delicious.

Three West African countries have detected the lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu in their chickens: Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon.

But ahead of the actual disease comes a wave of anxiety. Many people, like Komi Adokpe, have stopped eating chicken because they fear they are exposing themselves to deadly virus.

This is the Southern Fried Chicken restaurant in Accra, Ghana, has no recorded case of bird flu. Mina Wulff has been the manager here for eight years. Business is still flowing, but nowadays there are customers who say they are not touching the chicken because they are scared of bird flu.

Mina guarantees her chicken is prepared to the highest standards and none of her customers need worry about bird flu.

"Whatever it is we have to do for it not to affect us, we are doing, so they should not be scared of it," she said. "Our chicken has to be washed well, treated well with your lemon, your salt and your vinegar, and fried very well to the right temperature. Just make sure your chicken is well cooked. Then have it done."

But the threat of bird flu traveling across the 250 kilometers and three borders from Nigeria is weighing heavily on Mina's mind.

"I am very worried, because most of our dishes are based on chicken, so when it gets to Ghana it will be something that could bring down the business and will affect us all," said Mina Wulff.

West African leaders have gone on the offensive to protect the poultry trade.

Benin's Agriculture Minister Fatiou Akplogan attended a poultry industry show two weeks ago in the hope of persuading people that chicken is safe to eat. He recommended chickens and eggs made in Benin, before tucking into his own chicken lunch.

Last week, representatives from across Africa gathered in Gabon to coordinate a plan to stop the flu's spread. They want to increase collaboration between countries and guard borders more carefully.

The Ghanaian government has placed an import ban on all poultry products from Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria.

World Health Organization's representative in Ivory Coast, Doctor Komla Siamevi, says informing people is central to its campaign to stop the virus.

"The problem now is that everybody is afraid. That is the reason we are trying to sensitize everybody, to give the right information to people and also how the country is preparing itself to control the disease if unfortunately it comes to Cote d'Ivoire one day," said Siamevi.

He says overreaction to the flu threat is affecting bird traders.

Bassir Bello is such a trader, who keeps around a hundred chickens in a small coop on an Abidjan street corner.

He says he sells between 10 and 20 chickens a day, but this has dropped recently, because his customers are scared of bird flu.

He says his birds do not have the virus, but Bassir's coop represents one of Africa's greatest problems in tackling bird flu.

If the customer requests it, Bassir's employee will slaughter the chicken, pluck it, and chop it up. Many chickens in Africa are kept in peoples' backyards or close to human habitats. It would be a mammoth mission to find all the chickens, which you see every couple of blocks.

And Bassir knows that his business will be in trouble if the disease makes it to Ivory Coast.

If it does arrive, he says, it will not be good, because nobody will come to buy any chickens.

He says he is worried.

He says, who is not scared of death, and asks, "You? Are you not scared of death?"

It is ironic that such an aggressive virus has struck African birds, as this Ghanaian testifies.

"All Africans like chicken," he said. "We have so many meals we can use chicken to cook with. Especially African dishes deal with chicken; tomato sauce, a la African sauce. Mostly we have to use chicken to cook with."

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