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UN Agency Warns Africa, Middle East Vulnerable to Deadly Bird Flu


The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says there is an increased risk of bird flu spreading to the Middle East and Africa. The food agency said the most serious concern is Eastern Africa because veterinary services are insufficiently prepared to deal with such an emergency.

Recent confirmation of the H5N1 bird flu strain in Romania and Turkey and fears of new outbreaks in Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia and Russia has U.N. officials convinced the virus is spreading along the pathways of migratory birds outside Southeast Asia.

The chief veterinary official at the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, Joseph Domenech, says wild birds seem to be the main avian influenza carriers.

"The migratory routes are going to the Middle East of course, Eastern Europe and Northern Africa, but most, most importantly and most worrying is Eastern Africa," Dr. Domenech said.

Dr. Domenech says more research is needed urgently to fully understand the role of wild birds in spreading the virus. He adds that their major concern now is the potential spread of bird flu in Africa, in the north and in the east.

"The capacity of the veterinary services in the countries to respond to outbreaks is not at the same level than the Middle East, or Northern Africa or Europe. In Africa you have services, which are a lot less able to answer," he said.

In Eastern African countries the close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities create an ideal breeding ground for the virus. Dr. Domenech explains what the immediate consequences there would be.

"Well, like in Asia, it means two things, first poultry production livelihood, food security for the people, rural development and the second one, a human pandemic risk," he said.

Dr. Domenech warns that if the virus becomes endemic in eastern Africa, this would increase the risk of the virus evolving through mutation into a strain that could be transmitted to and from humans.

The U.N. official also said that other European countries could become affected just like Romania. He added that the bird flu risk to European countries is relatively low at present, but this could change during the course of 2006.

"Next spring these birds will come back to their regions, their nesting regions and then they will bring the virus to Western and Northern Europe," Dr. Domenech said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization says veterinary services in Europe are very efficient and strong surveillance and disease control measures are in place to face the bird flu risk. As for African countries, the U.N. agency will assist them to strengthen surveillance on wild and domestic birds and improve laboratory capacities to be able to early detect the bird flu outbreak.