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Nigerian bird flu outbreak threatens disaster

Nigerian bird flu outbreak threatens regional disaster, UN agency warns

The deadly bird flu virus continues to spread in poultry in Nigeria and could cause a regional disaster despite strong control efforts taken by the Nigerian authorities, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today, calling for a vaccination campaign involving thousands of veterinarians and international donor support.

“There is ample evidence that the Nigerian bird flu situation is difficult and worrisome,” FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said in a statement at the agency’s Rome headquarters of the H5N1 avian influenza virus discovered earlier this month in Nigeria, the first African occurrence in the current outbreak.

“The movement and trade of poultry have strongly contributed to the further spread of the virus. The government has taken the right measures such as culling in outbreak areas and biosecurity controls, but the authorities are facing immense difficulties to enforce controls,” Mr. Domenech added.

“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,” he added.

Nigeria’s poultry population is estimated at 140 million. Backyard farmers account for 60 per cent of all poultry producers, commercial farmers for 25 per cent and semi-commercial farmers for 15 per cent.

Mr. Domenech stressed the importance of compensating farmers for loss of animals to encourage early reporting of outbreaks and effective application of control measures. “Without financial incentives, people will probably continue to hide outbreaks and sell infected poultry,” he said.

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.

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.

In Nigeria vaccination campaigns will require the mobilization of several thousand private and public veterinarians and will need a strong commitment from national and regional authorities and the support of the international donor community for vaccines, cars, vaccination teams and training.

“The close coordination of control activities and the need for a central chain of command at the level of the federal Chief Veterinary Officer and between the regional states are crucial,” Mr. Domenech said.

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