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First Avian Flu Outbreak Hits Africa

The World Health Organization says this week's outbreak of the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus in Nigeria demands immediate action and officials are warning the disease could easily spread to neighboring countries.

Bird farms across Africa's most populous nation have been placed under quarantine following Wednesday's announcement the H5N1 bird flu virus has now reached Nigeria.

Health experts say the outbreak could have staggering consequences for the African nation, where millions of people keep chickens in backyards for badly-needed food.

Alex Thiermann of the World Organization for Animal Health, which works closely with the United Nations, says Africa's first documented case of avian flu is of great concern for the entire continent.

"And it's something the OIC has been saying for awhile, that were the disease to get to Africa - it's a continent where most countries have very weak veterinary infrastructure - the rapidity to which the disease can be fought, and how quickly we can eliminate it, has to do very directly related to the quality of the veterinary infrastructures," he said.

Experts are concerned that sub-Saharan Africa, with about 600 million of the world's poorest people, is particularly ill-equipped to deal with a major health crisis.

They say any mass slaughters, such as those used to control the virus in Asia, will be difficult.

Nigeria's Health Minister, Dr. Jide Idris, says the government is working to contain the problem.

"We're going out now to alert all the health facilities/services to be on the lookout for species with similar symptoms, and then get them geared towards, now get them alerted to, this urgent problem," he said.

Scientists fear H5N1 could mutate into a form that passes easily from person to person, sparking a human influenza pandemic that could kill millions.

As avian flu spreads around the world, more people are exposed to it, increasing the chances of a dangerous mutation.

Since 2003, the virus has killed at least 88 people in Southeast Asia, China and Turkey.