- As two more Nigerian states - Kano and Plateau - have reported an outbreak of bird flu, there is fear that the spread of the disease is already out of control. Over 60,000 farm-raised birds have already died of the flu, which seems to have been spreading uncontrolled in the country for one month despite many warning signals. Millions of poultry may have to be slaughtered.
The Nigerian government yesterday confirmed the existence of the deadly bird flu and immediately set aside 1.5 billion naira (euro 9.7 million) for compensation to those whose birds would be killed to halt further spread. Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello set compensation at a rate of 250 naira (euro 1.60) "per bird killed to all those whose birds were affected and would be killed."
With an estimated poultry population of 140 million in Nigeria, compensations however could rapidly burst the budget. One day after Minister Bello's statement it became clear that the crisis was greater than first assumed. Not only the central Nigerian state of Kaduna was affected, also its neighbours to the north (Kano) and to the south (Plateau) have registered large numbers of dead chicken.
Nobody knows how far the epidemic has spread, or if it even has reached other West African countries. Reports of mysterious poultry deaths in Nigeria started to get reported already in the second week of January. Investigations into the deaths have obviously been slow; still on Monday, authorities denied there was any bird flu outbreak in Nigeria. Now, the flu is confirmed in three states.
While Agriculture Minister Bello yesterday assured the nation that there was "no cause for alarm as the government already has put remedial measures in place to bring any further spread under control," reports from Kaduna today indicate that the four infected poultry farms not yet are set under effective quarantine.
Criticism against the federal government was voiced by the commercial poultry farmers of the region, who felt authorities were acting too slowly. Awalu Haruna, secretary of the Poultry Farmers' Association of Kano, told Associated Press (AP) that "the government should have quarantined the affected farms to prevent further spread. But as I speak this has not been done. There is still movement of humans and birds in and out of these farms," Mr Haruna was quoted as saying.
Panic has yet to be spread among Nigerians, who are calmed down by the government's claim of being in control and of compensating birds that will have to be killed. Internationally, however, the situation is different as many fear that Nigerian authorities are not up to the giant task of stopping the feared virus from spreading.
Neighbour states, basically Benin, Niger and Cameroon, have already banned poultry imports from Nigeria and are investigating whether the epidemic already has reached them. International donors have been quicker than ever before pledging financial aid to Nigeria to get the outbreak under control. Washington is reported to already have pledged US$ 25 million to get the situation under control.
Specialists from several UN agencies fear it may already be too late. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which is assisting Nigerian authorities, warns that there is now a "high bird flu risk" in all of Africa. "If the situation in Nigeria gets out of control, it will have a devastating impact on the poultry population in the region, it will seriously damage the livelihoods of millions of people and it will increase the exposure of humans to the virus," said Samuel Jutzi of FAO.
While Nigerian Agriculture Minister Bello just advised Nigerians "to cook their chicken well to avoid any infection," FAO is desperate to reach out to Nigerians with the correct information on how to hinder further spread and infections. "People should avoid any contact with obviously diseased or dead birds, maintain personal hygiene (hand washing) after handling poultry or poultry meat and should cook chicken meat and eggs properly," the UN agancy advises.
Also Director-General Jong Wook Lee of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is very concerned and today offered support to the Nigerian government's national public information campaign. "Clear public information is critical to help protect human health," Dr Lee advised.
The WHO leader fears that Nigeria is not prepared to meet such a tough challenge. "African health systems are already struggling to cope with children and adults suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, respiratory infections and other infectious conditions," Dr Lee says. Human cases of the virus "may be difficult to distinguish from other illnesses. We simply do not know what the impact of exposure to avian influenza will be on the many people who may be already immunocompromised and in a fragile state of health."
Equally, David Nabarro, the UN's Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, today said he feared that "rest of Africa is in danger from the disease." The UN official indicated that Nigeria was a country without the veterinary or human health systems to contain the feared virus.
Striking back would be a painful affair, Dr Nabarro indicated. "Nigeria has an important commercial poultry sector and millions of backyard poultry farmers," he noted. As in other countries, millions of chicken may have to be killed to stop the spread of the disease. Minister Bello has already promised that "all suspected bird nationwide will be killed and buried."
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