- A string of poor West African nations today took action against the spread of the deadly bird flu virus following confirmation of an outbreak of the disease in Nigeria, the regional powerhouse.
Small Benin, which shares a porous border with Nigeria, slapped a ban on imports of all poultry products from its neighbour just hours after confirmation of Africa's first outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain on a poultry farm in northern Nigeria.
In a statement issued shortly before midnight on Wednesday, Guillaume Hounsoun, Benin's Director of Animal Husbandry, said that "Poultry products from Nigeria are formally banned until further notice" and called for help from the public to combat the disease. "People must contact the nearest veterinary office or the local authorities in case of the death of poultry or wild birds," his statement added.
The government of Niger, which neighbours infected northern Nigeria, likewise forbade the sale of Nigerian poultry products imported over the past month, announced the creation of a special task force, and issued a health warning. To prevent the spread of the virus, which ravages poultry but can jump to humans, the Nigerien government urged the public to avoid touching dead fowl or birds, to wash hands carefully after touching poultry and to eat only cooked poultry products, including eggs.
Mauritania and Gabon - which imports 98 percent of the poultry sold on its market - also banned Nigerian poultry imports on Wednesday.
Home to the world's six poorest nations, according to UN figures, West Africa is particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease. Its hospitals and health services are poorly-equipped and government institutions under-funded and often ill-organised. Many people meanwhile live at close quarters with chickens kept for food while migrating birds flock to its river deltas each year.
"We are very worried to see bird flu in Africa," Cheikh Sadibou Fall, the advisor to Senegal's Animal Husbandry Minister, told the UN media 'IRIN . "Nobody is safe given the transmission of the disease by migrating birds. We must take immediate steps." Senegal, whose northwestern Djoudj bird reserve is said to be the world's third biggest, last October set up a monitoring system in its bird reserves, began training park staff and opened sentinel poultry-farms.
In Gabon, health authorities this week ordered special training for medical staff to enable early diagnosis of the disease and opened a sentinel site in the main Libreville hospital.
"If the situation in Nigeria gets out of control, it will have a devastating impact on the poultry population in the region," said Samuel Jutzi of the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO). "It will seriously damage the livelihoods of millions of people and it will increase the exposure of humans to the virus," Mr Jutzi said in a statement issued from FAO's Rome headquarters.
FAO last month brought together countries from across West Africa for a meeting in the Malian capital Bamako aimed at establishing a regional bird flu monitoring network. The UN agency stumped up cash for a multi-million dollar initiative that will run for 18 months. Many of the countries have been working to combat bird flu for many months.
In a speech only last week, Togo's Agriculture Minister Charles Kondi, himself a veterinary surgeon, said that "as soon as cases were detected in Europe we closed our borders to all imports of live fowls because the virus is transmitted by live birds. But there are pockets along our borders where traders can pass bringing chicks in from Ghana," he added.
Cameroon, Ghana, Mali and Mauritania all banned imports of poultry products last year and have embarked on action plans, including tighter disease control, public information and plans to acquire bird flu vaccines.
But for the string of West African nations still at war or just emerging from strife, building a national front against disease will be a challenge. Examples include Côte d'Ivoire which remains divided in two with no health or veterinary services in place for six million people living in the rebel-held north, or Liberia, whose fledgling government is not yet fully in place.
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