- The news of bird flu has reached all corners of West Africa, causing consumers to avoid poultry and egg products, citizens to avoid wild birds and report deaths and governments to announce costly programmes. Hyped up reports of possible bird flu outbreaks in Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Mauritania and Senegal have so far proven unfounded, however. Scientists say wild birds are "unlikely" to bring the disease.
In Burkina Faso, the most dramatic report yet on "a bird flu outbreak" emerged in local and international media. In the small village of Bazoulé, some 30 kilometres west of Ouagadougou, hundreds of wild and domestic birds died a "mysterious" death last month. According to villagers quoted by the press, it took only two minutes to kill a chicken, and with 30 minutes, all the poultry at one farm had perished.
There was no doubt, self-declared "analyst" said. Bird flu had spread to Burkina Faso from neighbouring Niger. Migration routes of wild birds had made the spread likely. This weekend, Burkinabe veterinary authorities finally were able to answer the speculations. Laboratory results had proven an outbreak of the Newcastle disease in Bazoulé. The virus, endemic among poultry and wild birds in many countries, can cause great damage to the poultry industry, but is not dangerous to humans.
In Ouagadougou, consumers immediately reacted to the rumours. Markets sales of chicken and eggs had already dropped significantly after a bird flu outbreak among domestic poultry was confirmed in neighbouring Niger. The rumours of an outbreak in nearby Bazoulé made it even worse. Despite dropping poultry prices, Ouagadougou street food vendors have replaced fried chicken with fried fish on their menus.
The same had occurred in Niger, shortly after bird flu was detected just across the border, in northern Nigeria. With the feared disease spreading in Niger, consumers in this extremely poor country say "no" to chicken and egg products. According to FAO, the main victims of this consumption trend are West Africa's poor backyard producers.
"In Nigeria, for example, some producers are losing their means of livelihood as birds are culled and prices drop and employees on farms are losing their jobs," FAO noted with concern. The poultry industry here, however, by now has managed to turn the tide. Dora Akunyili, director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), last week made a much aired TV appearance, devouring chicken and canvassing for its safety. According to the Port Harcourt-based daily 'The Tide', this had already caused increased poultry sales.
In countries further to the west, potentially disastrous reports of possible outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu virus among wild fowls had caused great alarm. Citizens around the region had reported dead birds to national veterinary authorities, fearing that the virus had arrived wetlands and coasts with migratory birds.
In Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade this weekend revealed that a great number of dead wild birds had been sent to a laboratory in Italy to determine a possible bird flu outbreak. "All results are negative," President Wade announced - so far, no case of H5N1 virus has been detected in Senegal.
In Mauritania, more than 700 dead birds have been collected in three key localities for migratory birds in the country, which is one the main bird routes between Europe and Africa. Samples were also from the treasured national parks of Bank d'Arguin (far north) and Diawling (far south). Reports of the large numbers of bird deaths had already caused authorities on the nearby Spanish island of Fuerteaventura to assume an outbreak. Government bird flu coordinator Fall Mokhtar yesterday however could reveal that so far, all tests have been negative.
Also in Cape Verde, located far off the Senegalese coast, authorities feared the worst as a group of dead seabirds were found on the sparsely populated island on Santo Antăo. The island first was quarantined, but tests so far have not revealed the H5N1 virus, but the Pasteur Institute in Dakar has not yet concluded its tests.
Scientists indeed do not expect the wild birds found on Santo Antăo to be infected by the H5N1 bird flu virus. This is "very unlikely to be bird flu," Professor Chris Feare, a former head of bird research at the British Ministry of Agriculture, now an independent agricultural scientist, told afrol News today. On "remote and isolated oceanic islands," one should not expect any spread of the feared animal disease among wild birds.
Mr Feare also doubts that the still ongoing tests of birds found in Mauritania will prove to be bird flu, unless there is also a parallel, yet to be known outbreak among poultry in the country. An outbreak only among wild birds in Mauritania, he found "unlikely, but not totally impossible. It would represent a new scenario if dead wild birds were scattered across the country without a local source."
There are no current bird migrations to countries such as Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde from regions where the H5N1 virus is known to be found. Therefore, Mr Feare holds, if an outbreak does occur in for example Mauritania, "a local poultry source should be suspected," he advises. In Nigeria and Niger, the virus has only been found in poultry, and most probably reached the country through illegal imports from China or the Middle East.
The only great risk for West African countries, in Mr Feare's view was "the import of infected poultry or poultry products, or transport or packaging that has been used previously to carry infected material." He urged West African governments to "ban all imports of poultry, poultry products and captive birds from infected countries, and strengthen border controls to eliminate illegal imports." Further, authorities needed to "maintain surveillance and testing of all forms of poultry" and "immediately start an education policy involving all kinds of media available."
This has also been the response in most countries of the region. The governments of Cape Verde, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania have already embarked on massive and costly education and sensitising campaigns and have banned poultry imports. Also Senegalese President Wade - despite the fear on an outbreak among wild birds - holds that the greatest risk is from "the large clandestine traffic in chicken that has developed along the African coast." He announced stricter controls.
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