- An outbreak of avian influenza among poultry in northern Nigeria today was officially confirmed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). This is the first confirmed outbreak of the feared virus ever in Africa and specialists are concerned about the capacity of Nigerian authorities to hinder further spread.
The Paris-based intergovernmental organisation OIE today issued a statement saying that Nigerian authorities had "officially notified" of the occurrence of an outbreak of avian flu in poultry on their territory. According to the Nigerian notification report, the outbreak affected a commercial layers unit kept in battery cages, in Jaji village, Kaduna state, in the northern part of the country.
"Stamping out, quarantine, animal movement control inside the country, and disinfection of the infected premises are the control measures undertaken by the Nigerian authorities so far," OIE reported.
According to Nigerian authorities, the avian flu outbreak has already killed a large amount of poultry in the village Jaji. Some sources speak of "thousands of dead birds" that had died mysteriously in the region during the last days. The deaths had originally raised suspicion of a possible bird flu outbreak and caused official investigations.
International laboratory investigations confirm the outbreak. The OIE/FAO reference laboratory for Avian Influenza in Padova (Italy) has already characterised the isolate as "a highly pathogenic H5N1" and has further analysed its genetic composition. Further investigations are now being carried out in Padova.
The H5N1 strain of the virus is known to be highly potential and deadly to birds. In Asia, this strain is known to have infected people living in close contact with infected poultry. An estimated 90 persons have been killed by the virus during the last three years in Asia.
The OIE, together with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), have announced that they are to "take immediate action and coordinate a common response to this event." A team of experts is now to be sent to the affected area in order "to assess the situation and provide technical advice to the national authorities," OIE announced.
Nigerian authorities have already started reacting to the outbreak. Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello today announced that all poultry in the affected area would be slaughtered and eliminated, while a quarantine has been put in place. The federal government was to pay a compensation to affected poultry-holders, Minister Bello promised. Around US$ 15 million had already been set aside in the budget.
For Nigeria, the documented outbreak may have severe economic implications, especially for poor, rural areas. The effectively hinder the outbreak from spreading, massive slaughter campaigns of chicken and other poultry must be implemented rapidly. Poultry is mainly held in poorer households.
Specialists in particular fear for an unchecked outbreak of the avian flu in this region as health and hygienic standards are low, many people live in close daily contact with their poultry and poor infrastructures may hinder effective information and quarantine measures.
The greatest fear is however that, if many persons get infected by the deadly virus strain, it may at some point mutate so that it starts infecting from person to person directly. This has so far not happened, but historically, it is the typical way new diseases are created. A possible mutated virus may rapidly cause a deadly, global flu epidemic.
Also the World Health Organisation (WHO) today stated its concern over the outbreak in Nigeria. WHO underlines the risks to humans and says it will closely monitor the situation in Nigeria. The UN agency however generally does not recommend any restrictions on travels to areas affected by avian flu, but advises travellers to "avoid contact with high-risk environments" such as animal markets and poultry farms.
"Direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their droppings, is considered the main route of human infection. Exposure risk is considered highest during slaughter, defeathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking. There is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or poultry products can be a source of infection," WHO advises.
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