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Bird Flu Expert Warns of More Outbreaks in Nigeria


In the wake of last week's announcement confirming Nigeria's first human case of bird flu, Gilbert da Costa in Abuja examines the incidence of bird flu in Nigeria and growing concerns about its spread.

The Nigerian government says 19 states and Abuja, the capital, have reported bird flu outbreaks in the past few days. The latest official bulletin says the H5N1 virus is widespread and continuing in the poultry population in Nigeria.

The first case of human H5N1 occurred barely a year after Nigeria reported its first avian influenza outbreak.

Since then, the West African country has struggled to deal with the lethal virus. Experts on bird flu are increasingly worried that Nigeria risks becoming a permanent host to the virus.

"If you look at the history of the fighting of this disease, there are so many people that are not actually involved," said Dr. Garba Sharabutu, a veterinarian and president of the Nigerian veterinarian association. "If you stop the movement of poultry products, you need the road transport workers to know what is happening. You need the law enforcement agents to know what is happening. You need traditional rulers to know what is happening. It is then and only then, that we will have a very firm control over the disease."

Backyard farmers are particularly at risk because of poor surveillance and greater animal-to-human contact. The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that backyard farmers keep 60 percent of Nigeria's 140 million poultry.

While the strain is easily transmitted among poultry, it is believed that human infection comes from contact with sick animals.

Dr. Abdulsalam Nasidi, in charge of public health at the federal ministry of health, says Nigeria is taking the threat to public health very seriously.

"It is a pure public health issue, that the possibility of getting this to spread is so high because so many farms have been infected, even though they are being decontaminated," said Nasidi. "So, people must be very, very aware of what they need to do to protect themselves from acquiring this infection."

Nigeria and two other countries are considered the weakest link in the worldwide campaign to stem the disease.

With its overcrowded cities, endemic poverty, coupled with weak surveillance, Nigerian officials admit tracking the virus has become very daunting.

Dr.Jide Idris is a senior health official in Lagos, where the first bird flu-related human death was recorded.

"The population of this state is very, very large, very huge. Then our borders are very porous. We cannot fully restrict movement of these birds into Lagos state," said Idris. "We also have people and birds coming from other parts of West Africa. So, it is a bit tough for us."

Some Nigerians, including Kayode Oleyele, a veterinary officer in Lagos, are disheartened by a lack of commitment and firm action.

"We are not futuristic in our thinking, we think more of now and when you travel outside Nigeria, especially to some of these West African countries and you see how organized they are in trying to solve their problems, you will be surprised that Nigerians are so backward and lackadaisical," said Oleyele. "And they are unconcerned about their problems and I think that does not speak well of us in Nigeria."

The deadly strain of Avian Influenza was first detected on a farm outside the northern city of Kaduna, in February 2006, from where it spread to other parts of the country and Africa.

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