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Nigeria Braces for Human Infection of Bird Flu

Health authorities in Nigeria say they believe the transmission of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus to humans is very likely. The fear is based on the fact that a lot of people have been exposed to the virus since it appeared in the north several weeks ago.

Health experts say it is only a matter of time before the first case of human infection of the deadly bird flu virus is confirmed in Nigeria.

The authorities are accused of responding slowly to the outbreak, allowing farm workers access to thousands of infected chickens without protection. In several cases, workers used their bare hands to pack dead chickens for destruction.

Even young children were in some cases exposed to the virus. Experts say these developments have raised the prospect of a major health crisis in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.

Dr. Abdu Nasidi, is in charge of the bird flu outbreak at the ministry of health in Abuja. He says the transfer of the virus to humans is a possibility.

"The unprofessional approach by the farmers was actually as a result of wrong messaging," Nasidi said. "The livestock department sent messages to the states and local governments to quickly alert all poultry farmers and owners of bigger farms, backyard farmers that the moment they see chickens dying, they should call either LG [local government] or state veterinary officers that have been sensitized and know what to do. But this was not done, there was panic and people really mishandled the situation. We really apologize for this but all the same, the government is doing everything possible to stop this [transmission from animals to humans] from happening."

So far, there have been no confirmed human cases in Nigeria, despite the deaths of tens of thousands of chickens over the past month. Experts say Nigeria's health system is in poor condition and human infection of H5N1 could lead to a major crisis.

Dr. Nasidi says the government is mobilizing resources to deal with the worst case scenario.

"If it happens, we definitely have to be more prepared, which is exactly what we are doing now," he said. "We've submitted our budget which was jointly prepared by us and our partners and I think the government and partners are addressing this and the preparedness is to get drugs and vaccines against seasonal influenza and vaccinate all exposed people, people at risk to prevent it, cross-transmutation of the virus."

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Friday warned that there is now a high possibility that the bird flu virus may spread to other countries in West Africa.

Most countries in the region are under threat of severe hunger and the organization says the spread of the virus to these countries could be devastating.