Spread of Bird Flu Expected in Africa

Now that the deadly bird flu virus has spread to poultry in northern Nigeria, experts say it is almost certain to spread further in Africa. Nigeria's poultry population is estimated at 140 million birds, and the nation appears ill-equipped to stamp out the virus.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The bird flu virus that emerged in Asia almost a decade ago has crossed another threshold: into Africa. No human cases are known yet, but international health officials say the Asian virus has caused a major die off of poultry in northern Nigeria. Experts say it's almost certain to spread further within a continent least able to stop emerging diseases.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

Just as the world was learning that the bird flu virus had spread to Turkey early last month, the virus was beginning to kill chickens on a large poultry farm in the northern Nigerian town of Jaji. Farmers and state veterinarians first thought it was a common chicken disease called Newcastle(ph). Only this week did the U.N. laboratory in Italy discover its real identity.

Mr. ALEX THIERMANN (World Organization for Animal Health, Rome): With information we have now there is no doubt that it is the same virus that infected Asia and Europe.

KNOX: Alex Thiermann is with the World Organization for Animal Health in Rome, which tracks the spread of veterinary diseases. He says the virus called H5N1 killed 40,000 out of 46,000 chickens on the Nigerian farm. This is just the beginning.

Mr. THIERMANN: With such a large operation being affected, it's very likely that at least backyard flocks in that vicinity are going to be infected. It is very unusual that it would be a single farm, though this magnitude.

KNOX: And, in fact, poultry producers report major chicken die offs in three other states in northern and central Nigeria. Awalu Haruna, of the Nigerian Poultry Association, says nobody knows yet if the H5N1 virus is to blame.

Mr. AWALU HARUNA (Nigerian Poultry Association): We are deeply worried, you know, because it's possible this will bring an end to our business; and secondly, we're also worried about the health hazards.

KNOX: No poultry farmers have gotten sick yet, as far as anyone knows. U.N. Agriculture officials say they're sure H5N1 will crop up elsewhere in Nigeria and beyond. It's still a mystery how the virus got to northern Nigeria. Some think the most likely source is migrating birds. Nigeria sits at the intersection of migratory flyways that funnel millions of birds each year, from central and western Asia, to West and South Africa. Others are skeptical that wild birds brought the virus to Nigeria. Wetlands International is an environmental group that's been monitoring migrating birds. Alex Kaat says the group hasn't found any signs of H5N1.

Mr. ALEX KAAT (Communications Manager, Wetlands International): The place, where now the outbreak has been confirmed, is a strange location for the birds that are able to transmit the disease. This is a very dry area of Africa. There are hardly any wetlands around.

KNOX: But Joseph Domenech, who heads Animal Health for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization doesn't think it could have happened any other way.

Dr. JOSEPH DOMENECH (Head of U.N. Animal Health, U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization): If it's not wild birds, we have some difficulties to understand, because there is no commercial trade between Middle East or Asia and Western Africa. So, it's very difficult to understand, if it comes through regular official trade, but this is, today, impossible to say.

KNOX: Others think illegal poultry trade may have brought the virus in from Asia, or maybe infected wild birds brought it first to another wetter area of Nigeria where infected poultry then got shipped to the dry north. Of one thing there's no doubt, Nigeria, with a poultry population of perhaps 140 million, is ill-equipped to stamp out Asian bird flu.

Again, Alex Thiermann of the World Organization for Animal Health.

Mr. THIERMANN: The concern that we have in Africa, in general, is this is a country for the very weak infrastructure, veterinary infrastructure. They're trying to do their best, but they don't have the ability to detect and report very quickly, something that we find is essential for controlling this disease. So, they need help.

KNOX: While Africans struggle with the problem, many wonder if this moves the risk of a global flu pandemic a big step closer. The great fear is that the bird flu virus will mutate into a form that can pass easily from person to person. Dr. Michael Osterholm, of the University of Minnesota, predicts we will see human cases of bird flu in Africa.

Dr. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM (University of Minnesota): I would expect to see a very similar pattern of infections develop in humans in Africa. The sporadic cases that occur in close contact with chickens. While we'll be concerned about cases of H5N1 in humans in Africa, I don't see that as being a tipping point, or necessarily the next step in getting closer to a pandemic.

KNOX: Osterholm thinks the real danger of a pandemic mutation is still among the billions of infected birds and susceptible humans back in southern Asia.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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