- Not unexpected, the first cases of the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus have been confirmed at two localities in Niger, both being close to the long and permeable border with Nigeria. Also here, domesticated poultry is affected. Nigerien authorities and UN agencies were already prepared for this second bird flu outbreak in a sub-Saharan country.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) already had shipped equipment to combat a previewed bird flu outbreak in Niger and experts were on their way to Niamey to react to the unavoidable. The news of confirmed cases of H5N1 infections came before the FAO experts had time to meet with national authorities.
It was the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) that confirmed the bad news today. Domesticated ducks had died under suspicious conditions in Magaria and Dan Barde, two locates close to the Nigerian border. Laboratory tests confirmed that the ducks had died of the dangerous strain of bird flu. Neither OIE nor Nigerien authorities were surprised by the result.
Niger shares a long and permeable border with Nigeria. The 1500 kilometres of common border are poorly supervised and local traders easily avoid border posts. The Nigerien total ban on poultry trade with Nigeria could not be efficiently controlled, so it was only a matter of time before the feared bird flu would reach the country.
Therefore, preparations had been going on since the bird flu outbreak in Nigeria was confirmed on 8 February. It was immediately clear that Niger, the world's poorest country, would need international help to tackle an outbreak of the feared animal disease. A Nigerien committee against avian influenza was set up. Two weeks ago, the Committee called for a 2.2 billion CFA franc (US$ 3.9 million) emergency prevention programme.
FAO rapidly brought in specialists and equipment that would be needed when an outbreak would be confirmed. Only today - before the outbreak was confirmed - FAO sent a regional coordinator to advise Niger on how to control the spread of the bird flu virus. The regional coordinator for the agency's bird flu emergency projects in West Africa was to review the Nigerien government's surveillance and preparedness plans and advise Niamey on its bird flu control campaign.
Last week, the FAO reported that 13 countries, including Nigeria and Egypt in Africa, have reported the occurrence of bird flu in wild and domestic birds since the beginning of the month, part of a recent pattern of rapid geographical spread of the virus, which in a worst case scenario could develop into a lethal human pandemic.
Since the first reports of H5N1 in Asia at the end of 2003, 170 human cases have been reported, 92 of them fatal, mostly in South-East Asia and China. Nearly 200 million domestic poultry have died or been culled in order to contain the spread. The economic loss to the affected Asian countries has been estimated at around $10 billion.
UN health officials have warned that the virus could evolve into a lethal human pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily between people. Cases so far have been traced to infection directly from diseased birds. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.
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