- As the bird flu continues to spread in Nigeria, national authorities and UN agencies fear that quarantine and culling measures will not be enough to stop the disease from becoming "a regional disaster". Mass vaccination of poultry is therefore considered, although this controversial step actually could help the virus spread.
The UN's food and agriculture agency FAO is among the major advisors to the Nigerian government when it comes to combating the outbreak of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus in the country. So far, FAO in public has stated its relative satisfaction with Nigeria's actions, which mainly have been confined to more or less effective quarantine measures and the mass slaughtering of poultry in affected areas.
Today, however, the for once well-financed UN agency strongly indicated that Nigeria's answer to the feared animal disease is not enough. FAO warns of "a regional disaster" in all of West Africa if stronger measures are not implemented. Bird flu is still "advancing" in Nigeria and it seems only a matter of time before the deadly virus is found in a neighbour country.
Between the lines, FAO is saying that the Nigerian bird flu outbreak is getting out of control. The UN agency and for once generous Western donors fear that an explosive spread will lead to infections and deaths among humans, as has happened in Asia. Thus, the best conditions are given for H5N1 to mutate into a virus that could jump from human to human, being the start of a word-wide deadly flu epidemic.
Local quarantines and culling is not enough to stop the spread in Nigeria, Joseph Domenech, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer, today indicates. "There is ample evidence that the Nigerian bird flu situation is difficult and worrisome," he states. "The movement and trade of poultry have strongly contributed to the further spread of the virus." The government was now "facing immense difficulties to enforce controls," Mr Domenech adds.
Therefore, the influential FAO official gives the Nigerian government a controversial advice. "Considering the possible widespread entrenchment of the disease in poultry, FAO is advising the government to prepare for a targeted vaccination campaign. Culling and the application of biosecurity measures alone may not stop the spread of the virus," Mr Domenech said in a statement today.
Mass vaccination of poultry against the feared H5N1 bird flu virus is indeed controversial and several experts claim it could make the outbreak uncontrollable once and for all. In Germany, authorities have gone against the demands of the economically important poultry industry, ruling out vaccinations. In France and the Netherlands - Europe's two major poultry producers - the governments today got an approval from the EU to start vaccinations, despite protests from Germany.
The reasons behind the German protest are experiences from earlier poultry disease outbreaks, which turned uncontrollable due to vaccination. Vaccinated chicken will not die from the virus, but can still be infected and pass H5N1 on to other birds. Vaccinated chicken could therefore become an invisible pool for the virus. Berlin thus go for mass slaughtering. The Dutch and French, on the other hand, hold that laboratory tests had shown that the transmission rate from vaccinated but infected chickens to healthy birds was very low.
In the case of Nigeria, FAO nevertheless holds that vaccination should now be rapidly considered. The UN agency says it understands that such a step would prove very challenging. The Nigerian poultry industry cannot be compared to that of West Europe, where almost all chickens are held in large, industrial premises.
In Nigeria, the poultry population is estimated at 140 million. Backyard farmers account for 60 percent of all poultry producers, commercial farmers for 25 percent and semi-commercial farmers for 15 percent. Vaccination, if it is to reach a 100 percent coverage in an area, would therefore be a complicated issue.
"Vaccination campaigns will require the mobilisation of several thousand private and public Nigerian veterinarians and will need a strong commitment from national and regional authorities and the support of the international donor community," FAO admits. Such campaigns would require funds for vaccines, cars, vaccination teams, training, etc. It would be necessary with surveillance teams that are able to carefully monitor the situation and intervene immediately when an outbreak occurs.
The UN agency is not unprepared when making this suggestion. FAO has already been building up strategic stocks of vaccines, syringes and protective gear for people involved in control operations. Other technical equipments have also been shipped into Nigeria. Several Western donors have also promised to contribute strongly to the fight against the bird flu outbreak, including funding vaccination. One dose of chicken vaccine costs between 5 and 20 US cents, according to FAO.
Mr Domenech however emphasises that a possible vaccination campaign is not enough to stop the further spread of bird flu in Nigeria and West Africa. Further culling and quarantines will be necessary, together with earlier reporting of suspicious bird deaths and compensation for farmers.
Most important at this stage is informing the public about possible risks and how to avoid 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 at or above 70° Celsius throughout the product, so that absolutely no meat remains raw and red. In outbreaks areas, chicken and eggs should not be eaten," FAO advises.
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