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Nigeria Battles New Bird Flu Strain


Animal health specialists warn a new strain of highly pathogenic bird flu in Nigeria - which has previously not been recorded in sub-Saharan Africa - increases the risk of avian influenza spreading to other countries in West Africa. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa in Abuja filed this report on Nigeria's campaign to deal with the threat.

Nigeria's bird flu officials blame infected migratory birds from Europe or Central Asia for the spread of the new strain of H5N1 to the country.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization says the newly discovered virus strain is genetically different from the strain that circulated in Nigeria in 2006 and 2007.

The U.N. food agency says the new strain is similar to ones previously identified in Italy, Afghanistan and Iran, last year.

A senior FAO official has expressed doubts wild birds carried the strain to Africa, because this year's southerly migration has yet to begin. International trade or illegal and unreported movement of poultry are considered a more probable source of the outbreak.

Garba Sharabutu, professor of veterinary medicine and president of the Nigerian Veterinary Association, supports the expansion of surveillance activities, but rejects fears the new strain of H5N1 represents a major threat.

"There is no cause for alarm, because we are dealing with the same strain of virus," said Sharabutu. "The ones that are prevalent in Africa have been Class 1 and 2. But the one we are having is Class 3, and it is very common in Western countries. But it is the same strain of H5N1 we are dealing with. The point here is that we should expend our surveillance system. We should continue to expand our search for the source of the organism."

Nigeria recently reported two new highly pathogenic bird flu outbreaks in the northern states, Katsina and Kano. The virus, which can spread to humans, was found in local poultry markets.

Scientists warn the virus could spread to other countries in the region, if not checked. Sharabutu says Nigeria has taken steps to ease the likelihood of the spread of the virus.

"We are expanding our frontiers to include even those who sell eggs in the market, for them to report these cases to the state directors of veterinary services," said Sharabutu. "Desk officers have been sent right to local government areas to be receiving reports."

The World Health Organization says the H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 240 out of the nearly 400 people known to have been infected since 2003. The disease has also forced the slaughter of some 300 million birds, worldwide.

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