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Nigerian Officials Fear Country Unable to Cope With Large Avian Flu Outbreak

Four countries in Africa have reported cases of the deadly strain of avian flu -- Egypt, Niger, Nigeria and, most recently, Cameroon, where it was confirmed in a duck. So far, no people are known have died in Africa from contact with sick birds as has been the case elsewhere, mostly in Asia. But the outbreaks are testing the ability of African nations to contain and prevent the spread of the virus, which experts fear will mutate into one that is transmissible among humans. VOA's Catherine Maddux looks at the case of Nigeria.

In February, the Nigerian government reported what many officials and experts had already predicted would happen: an outbreak of bird flu.

It was discovered at a poultry farm in northern Kaduna state, making Nigeria the first African nation to be hit with the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu virus.

The announcement set off a wave of anxiety as authorities moved in to contain the virus and farmers were forced to cull their flocks.

Since February, the World Health Organization reports that H5N1 has spread to 12 of Nigeria's 36 states.

The head of the country's poultry association estimates that farmers have, so far, lost more than six million dollars due to the outbreak.

Dr. David Nabarro, U.N. System Influenza Coordinator, says to fight bird flu effectively countries have to take certain basic steps. "Any country that is suddenly coping with the introduction of avian influenza into the domestic and poultry population has a tough time initially. Because, first of all, people have to be ready for the reality of their farms becoming restricted areas and their poultry being culled. And secondly, the government has to institute a program of compensation payments for people who lose their birds. And that does take some time to set up," he said.

The Nigerian government has set up a presidential committee for avian flu and promised compensation to farmers affected by the outbreaks.

There is widespread criticism that the amount of compensation, around $2 per bird, is far from enough. And the fact that farmers are only being paid for birds that have been culled, and not for those that have already died.

But one of the biggest concerns about Nigeria's ability to handle the deadly strain of bird flu is its lack of infrastructure. Dr. Garba Sharabutu heads the Nigerian Veterinarian Medical Association.

"Ideally, each state has to have a veterinary hospital, which we do not have now, (I mean) well equipped ones. The facilities to run tests is not there. We don't have good equipment. And the local governments where these (sick) poultry actually are do not have veterinary personnel," he said.

Sharabutu adds that there is only one veterinary laboratory in Nigeria. Though it has been given some help from the government, he says it is not anywhere near able to deal with the amount of livestock in Nigeria.

Dr. Abdul Salami Nasidi, the coordinator of avian flu control in Nigeria and a director at the health ministry, admits that as a poor nation, Nigeria faces extra burdens in dealing with bird flu and has appealed for international help. For example, he says the World Bank has signed a deal to give Nigeria $50 million to, among other things, bolster the agricultural and health ministries as well as financing surveillance and upgrading laboratories.

And Dr. Nasidi strongly denies charges that the government has not come up with a comprehensive approach to deal with avian flu. He says the government is concentrating on preventing the flu from spreading to humans. "Our main strategy is to prevent the mutation and human to human transmission by engaging in active surveillance and preparing health facilities for proper case management. And at the same time, preparing some groups for vaccination against seasonal influenza to avoid cross-mutation.," he said.

For Veterinary Association Director Garba Sharabutu, the government's focus on the possibility of human to human transmission is wrong and will ultimately be ineffective. "The moment this disease is not approached from an economic point of view, it is going to fail. And we are saying this is a veterinary problem, it is an economic problem. So unless they change their focus, it is likely that we are just going to be running in a circle. And our warning is that we may succeed in slowing down the spread, but we may not completely contain that disease," he said.

Mr. Nabarro of the United Nations says there are effective and simple ways to contain the H5N1 virus. "When you've got an outbreak of avian influenza among poultry, obviously, the first task is to stamp that out by prompt action at the source. At the same time, because of the very rare but real possibility that the virus H5N1 can jump into a human and cause illness in the human, we've also got to take precautions that mean people will keep well away from birds. And certainly if they're sick, they've got to keep right away from them. And secondly, that they practice good hygiene and cook food properly," he said.

But it may be difficult to control how Nigerian poultry farmers and small-scale backyard chicken merchants react to outbreaks of bird flu. Many are scared that if they kill sick birds, they will be destroying their very livelihood. And that has led some to sell off sick birds quickly to avoid the loss of income and what they see as poor compensation from the government.