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West Africa Struggles to Contain Bird Flu Virus

The West African country of Togo recently announced more bird flu infections outside its capital, making it the seventh West African country to report finding the deadly H5N1 virus in its poultry. Bird flu experts say sub-Saharan Africa still has a long way to go in its battle against the virus, and any other animal diseases that may develop. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Togo's government officials say they have been working with farmers since early last year to ask them to report any signs of the virus.

The H5N1 virus re-emerged in poultry in Asia four years ago, and has since been reported to 60 countries around the world, killing more than 200 million poultry and more than half of the some 300 people infected.

Experts praised Togo's fast detection of the virus, but Togolese officials say getting people to listen has been hard.

Alex Thiermann, a director at the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, says people who raise animals in sub-Saharan Africa tend to be among the poorest, which makes it hard to convince them to kill their livelihood.

"It is very difficult to explain to them that we need to destroy birds because we worry about a potential pandemic," he said. "They do not have time to worry about the potential. They have so many problems to fight on a daily basis so unless there is a good incentive program where there is an assurance they will not lose anything by reporting, then it is hard to guarantee full participation."

Donors have promoted paying farmers as one way to encourage fast reporting. But there have been problems paying farmers for their lost poultry because it is not easy to prove ownership.

Olga Jonas, the World Bank's economic advisor for influenza programs who coordinates bird flu donor giving, says local officials need to identify poultry farmers and inventory their stock to prevent corruption.

"When there is an outbreak, you do not get into a lot of discussion about whether somebody did or did not have the poultry they are now claiming compensation for," she said.

But she admits it is hard to track small producers who live in remote areas. Noncommercial family-owned poultry farming is common in West Africa, where people often live in close contact with their birds

A second strategy to contain bird flu has been to improve animal health services.

Thiermann with the animal health organization says poor veterinary services in West Africa cripple the region's ability to control diseases that can spread rapidly.

"We are certain we are going to have a pandemic in the near future, but we do not know yet where it will begin and what that agent will be," he added. "We put so much emphasis on not only fighting the immediate problem, but also in building the infrastructure to allow these countries to early report and take rapid action, otherwise the entire world is going to be in danger."

The animal doctor says most diseases that have quickly spread throughout history originated in animals.

Animals are suspected of starting the spread of three major flu outbreaks in the 20th century that killed tens of millions of people.

However, not all potential donors are convinced of the threat that the virus can spread from one person to the next. So far, the virus has spread among animals and on a limited basis, from animals to people.

At a bird flu donor meeting this past September, the World Bank asked countries to raise an additional $1.5 billion.

The response was one-third that amount, and most of the money pledged was from the United States, Japan and European Union.

World Bank economic advisor Jonas is preparing another appeal for the next bird flu donor conference this December.

"The cost of a human epidemic would just be absolutely staggering, trillions of dollars," she noted. "So relative to the cost that we are trying to avoid by these preventative programs and control programs at the source, the two-point-three billion that has been committed so far is just a very small fraction."

This year in West Africa, the H5N1 virus has been detected in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo.

Donors have promised sub-Saharan Africa $95 million for bird flu programs, of which $50 million is for Nigeria, which has reported one human death from bird flu.