Analysis: U.N. steps up bird flu fight

By LAUREN MACK  |  Feb. 23, 2006 at 11:26 AM
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UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Despite Nigeria's efforts to battle bird flu, the United Nations is calling for more action, including a vaccination campaign, to thwart a possible regional threat as the deadly disease continues to spread.

While the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization commended Nigeria Wednesday for taking corrective action to try to rid the country of bird flu through culling and bio-security, the U.N. agency said the country was having trouble enforcing the controls.

FAO blamed the trade and movement of poultry as being detrimental to the fight against the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus in Nigeria, the first African country to have bird flu in the current outbreak.

"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 bio-security measures alone may not stop the spread of the virus," said Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer, in a statement Wednesday at the U.N. agency's Rome headquarters.

To encourage early reporting of outbreaks, FAO suggested the Nigerian government compensate farmers for the loss of animals. It called on the international community to provide money and support for vaccines, cars, vaccination teams and training.

The first outbreak in Nigeria was confirmed on a commercial farm in northern state of Kaduna Feb. 8. It has since spread to other states including Kano, Plateau, Katsina, and Bauchi, and to the Abuja area in central Nigeria.

There have been no human cases reported in Nigeria, but four people with respiratory symptoms, including one woman who died on Feb. 16, are being tested.

The majority of human bird flu cases have been attributed to close contact with dead household poultry through slaughtering, defeathering, butchering and poultry preparation, said the Geneva-based World Health Organization. Nigeria is vulnerable to outbreaks because backyard farmers make up 60 percent of all poultry production in the country.

There is concern the disease could easily spread to neighboring countries like Niger because the borders are porous and restrictions on the movement of people and poultry are difficult to enforce, said WHO. Nigeria has an estimated poultry population of 140 million, with the majority located in the southwestern part of Nigeria.

Since the first human case of the latest avian influenza outbreak was reported in 2003, U.N. agencies have been working with health organizations and government agencies to curb the spread of the deadly disease.

Avian flu is contagious and spread by excrement from migratory birds and from human interaction with infected animals. H5N1 is a particular concern because it mutates rapidly, said WHO. There is no cure for the virus but drugs exist to help fight the disease in humans and lessen its affect.

Since 2003, there have been 170 cases of bird flu including 92 deaths, mostly in Southeast Asia and China, according to WHO. Some 200 million birds have died or been culled to curb the disease. The economic loss to the affected Asian countries has been estimated at around $10 billion.

So far, the disease has only been transmitted between animals and humans, and not between humans, which could spark a pandemic.

Some $1.9 million was pledged at the International Pledging Conference on Avian and Human Influenza in Beijing last month to confront bird flu, which the World Bank has estimated will cost $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion to tackle. A human avian influenza pandemic could cost the global economy $800 billion per year, according to the World Bank.

Some 13 countries reported the occurrence of bird flu in wild and domestic birds in February, heightening fears the virus could evolve into a human pandemic killing millions of people if it mutates into a form that could transmit easily between humans.

Iraq, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Iran, Austria, Germany, Egypt, India and France reported cases of bird flu this month. Of the countries newly affected, only Iraq reported human cases, said WHO. Two people have died from bird flu in Iraq.

Bird flu has not been a big problem in Europe because most poultry production takes place on large commercial farms, making the virus easier to detect and control. In Africa, most poultry production takes place on small private farms, making the virus more difficult to identify, said FAO.

Coordination and communication is crucial in fighting bird flu in Nigeria, said FAO.

Avian influenza was first identified 100 years ago during an outbreak in Italy and it has cropped up several times since. The first documented cases involving humans infected with bird flu occurred in Hong Kong in 1997 and 1998. Hong Kong's entire poultry population, estimated at around 1.5 million birds, was destroyed in three days, which probably averted a pandemic, said WHO.

The Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920, said WHO.

The greatest infection risk comes from household flocks which provide the most opportunity for human exposure and infection. No one has died from eating properly cooked poultry or eggs even in households where the disease was confirmed, said WHO.

The key to preventing transmission is to take hygienic precautions such as proper hand washing and cleaning of clothes, cages and other items that come in contact with the birds help prevent spread of the disease, said WHO.

"The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus poses a very serious threat to animal health in West Africa. If a poultry epidemic should develop beyond the boundaries of Nigeria, the effects would be disastrous for the livelihoods and the food security of millions of people," said Domenech during a visit to Nigeria last week.

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