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African Bird Flu Conference Fails to Discuss Human Infection

At the end of a three-day bird flu conference in Gabon, some experts are surprised that African ministers did not discuss measures to prevent human infection. African ministers met to coordinate attempts to stop the spread of the lethal virus on the continent.

Many of those attending the conference in Gabon's capital, Libreville, left with unanswered questions.

While everyone at the U.N.-organized meeting agreed that cooperation was necessary to prevent bird flu from spreading across the continent, many were baffled that the issue of human infection was not brought up.

The conference's aim had been to coordinate African efforts to stop the spread of the fatal H5N1 strain of bird flu while this was still possible.

Representatives from the 46 attending states agreed to increase cooperation, especially along their borders. The measures included confining poultry as much as possible and increasing veterinary controls.

Nigeria's representative told VOA that Nigeria's land was highly productive. He said the spread of the avian flu across most of the north of the country has seriously affected its agricultural output.

The issue of preventing human infection was not discussed at the conference. Several experts said this was an aspect that should have been talked about.

Gabon editor Desiree Enam said he was surprised.

"This is what I find really strange," he said. "The conference is talking about the possibility of contamination in poultry and birds and so on, but nothing has been said in case human beings are affected."

Meanwhile, the first African human fatality occurred in Egypt during the weekend. The World Health Organization says the risk of human infection in Africa is as great as in Asia, where the majority of reported deaths have occurred, because many people live close to their chickens.

Funding is a second major issue that several African representatives felt went unanswered. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Health Organization are expected to provide money, although some of the previously promised donor funds did not materialize. Sufficient funding remains uncertain.

Senior U.N. bird flu coordinator David Nabarro told the meeting that the lack of facilities to perform basic tests for bird flu in African countries is a big problem. It takes between 10 and 20 days to send samples to Europe and to receive results. Nabarro said this was too long to wait before activating emergency control plans.

Scientists still fear that the virus will mutate to pass from one person to another, causing a global epidemic.