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Liberia's Only Veterinarian Wages Lonely Prevention Battle Against Bird Flu


Liberia has just one veterinarian. As part of his many government duties, the veterinarian, who is also director of livestock resources, helps prevent bird flu, following outbreaks in nearby countries. As VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Careysburg, he often fights a lonely battle.

"They did not leave the inside key with me," the guard says.

"Oh! You don't have the key to the back door? Nothing? " asks Kpadeh Koikoi.

"No," The guard responds.

Koikoi expresses surprise when he finds himself locked out of the country's sole veterinary diagnostic lab.

The only other employee here is a man cutting grass. Liberia's only lab technician is absent, as are his usual assistants.

Still, Moscow-trained Koikoi proudly gives a brief outside tour of the lab.

"As you see, here you have the generator, which has just been installed to serve the lab," he explains. "Because as a lab, we need 24 hours of current. And, as you may know, since the onset of the war, the whole country is in darkness. We do not have electricity."

Koikoi says Liberia has yet to have a case of bird flu, but it is important to have a lab for testing purposes, since the similar, poultry-affecting Newcastle's disease is quite prevalent.

"The Newcastle disease is very similar to avian influenza," he notes. "The only differentiation you can make is in the lab. But the symptoms they look very similar. There are only two differences. One [is] the length of the disease. Second [is from the] laboratory test. Newcastle disease is lengthier, one to two weeks, before the chicken can die. For avian influenza, it is a matter of hours."

Chicken are being fed in the biggest nearby farm, known as Wulki Farms.

Manager Roland Beyan says many smaller farms fail to take necessary precautions.

"Poultry health is difficult, because one disease can carry you and the whole flock can just die," he says. "So I advise that , if you get into such a thing, you should have an idea. Sometimes, you get the money to do [things], but you do not have the technical know-how. But you can consult someone who has an idea and they will guide you."

On the Kakata highway between Careysburg and his Monrovia agriculture ministry offices, Koikoi stops below a sign advising people not to sleep with their poultry. Farmers living right next to the sign had not even seen it.

But Koikoi say it is important advice.

"Because of the war, the crime rate has gone high," he says. "In the countryside, the poultry owners decided to sleep with the poultry in the same house. We advised them not to do it, because in case of an outbreak of avian influenza, they will be contaminated through the air."

The H5N1 strain of bird flu can contaminate and kill humans. Further north, Egyptian officials say there have been 19 H5N1 deaths in the past two years.

During regional workshops in Liberia, Koikoi gives plenty advice to avoid such a scenario in his own country. For example, he tells customs officers not to allow chicken to cross the border from Ivory Coast, where bird flu has been detected, or he explains how to handle dead chicken with plastic bags.

"When they put their hand in the plastic bag, they should hold the dead chicken and bury it when they have already dug the hole, bury it, and bury with the plastic. They should not touch it," he explains. "During my last trip, I met with a lady, and she had a seminar, a workshop she attended, and she could still remember these rules. So I felt very happy that our message was going through."

The anti bird-flu sign on the road to Monrovia also has hotline numbers for reporting any problems with poultry, but unfortunately Koikoi says the numbers are not answered any more. He says, as the country's only vet, with only one pickup truck at his disposal, he faces challenges alone.

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