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Fresh Outbreak of Bird Flu Alarms Nigerian Officials


Experts say a fresh outbreak of avian influenza in Nigeria is more widespread than thought. As Gilbert da Costa reports from Abuja, this has provoked fears of long-term risks.

The Nigerian Veterinary Association says the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu remains a major problem in Nigeria and warns that the country risks triggering an even bigger round of infection.

Veterinary Association spokesman Bala Mohammed says more states have reported new cases of the disease, in the last few weeks.

"What we considered a resurgence is becoming alarming. From an initial three, then 10 states, almost all the states have been having a recurrence," he said. "That is a very serious challenge and it also calls for a review of the entire process that we adopted. In the last month, we've heard about Delta State, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Cross River and a lot of cases in Lagos."

Nigeria and two other countries are considered the weakest link in the worldwide campaign to stem the disease.

John Lange heads the U.S government programs for foreign governments and international organizations to deal with avian influenza. He says Nigeria should step up its surveillance program.

"It is very important having the federal government working closely with state governments and local government areas to fully implement their plans on avian influenza. And, as part of that strategy is the need to undertake surveillance activities, to send veterinarians and others to all the states of Nigeria to really verify the level of avian influenza outbreaks," he said.

Millions of birds have died or become infected in Nigeria since the avian flu outbreak was first detected, last February, causing severe hardship for farmers, who have had very little support from the government.

Veterinary officials believe widespread disaffection with the compensation system put in place by the government is keeping farmers from reporting bird deaths, making tracking of the virus more difficult.

Garba Sharabutu is a veterinarian and president of the Nigerian Veterinary Association.

"We had cause to disagree with the government over this compensation. The first signal that the disease, avian influenza, is on a farm is when you estimate the total loss to be more than 50 percent," he noted. "Now, when move in there and you go and pay for those animals that you were able to actually destroy, when know that the cardinal signal is that 50 percent has already died, you go and pay compensation for only 50 percent, there is going to be a problem."

Lange, who met several poultry farmers on his recent trip to Nigeria, acknowledges that the compensation package for farmers is a huge drawback.

He says it is more of an international problem.

"The idea that the birds will be culled so that there will be no more outbreaks from that particular infection and then compensating the owners is an issue not just in Nigeria, but all over the world. In fact, at a meeting in Vienna, Austria, in June, we discussed the need for more expertise on culling and compensation," he added. "I discussed that here and, in fact, when we met yesterday with the Kaduna State Poultry Association, they were frustrated at the delays for receiving compensation for birds that have been culled."

Scientists warn that the H5N1 virus may mutate into one that is transmissible among humans, triggering a pandemic.

Backyard farmers are particularly at risk because of poor surveillance and greater human-to-animal contact.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Association estimates that backyard poultry farmers keep 60 percent of Nigeria's 140 million poultry.

Mohammed says, with major Christian and Muslim festivities planned for the next couple of weeks, the risk of bird flu is even more acute.

"I look at seasons like this where you have festive seasons; Christmas, Sallah and New Year, as an important season when we must step up public enlightenment," he added. "You will agree with me that these are the periods people go for these chickens and they do it all cost. Everybody must have chicken on his table. It is a very big issue in Nigeria."

Experts on bird flu are increasingly worried that Nigeria risks becoming a permanent host to the virus.