Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Possible arrival of bird flu sets off African alarm bells

AFP , NAIROBI

The arrival of a lethal strain of bird flu on the outskirts of Europe and its predicted spread to Africa has set off alarm bells on the impoverished continent where an outbreak could be devastating.

Without international assistance, poverty-stricken African nations -- ?whose populations are already at risk from hunger and suppressed immune systems -- ? could be overwhelmed if the virus appears and jumps to humans, experts said.

"If Europe, which has many means to stop the bird flu, wasn't able to prevent it, what will happen to us in Africa?" worried an official with the African Union's Nairobi-based Bureau of Inter-African Animal Resources (BIAR).

"Things spread fast," BIAR's director, Mordibo Traore, said. "Just a month ago, one wouldn't have thought the disease would arrive so quickly in Europe."

On Thursday, European scientists confirmed that sick birds in Turkey had fallen ill with the virulent H5N1 strain of the virus, which has killed more than 60 of 120 people infected in southeast Asia, with tests still under way in Romania.

Although the flu does not spread easily between people, those who come in contact with sick birds can contract it and scientists say millions of people worldwide could die if it mutates into a disease communicable among humans.

The coming arrival in Africa of millions of migratory birds from Europe, where wintertime is fast approaching, has led to dire warnings from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that the virus may reach the continent by December or next spring.

If it does, the east African Rift Valley countries of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania will be particularly threatened, according to the FAO, which last month organized a conference in Nairobi to alert the region to the danger.

The meeting, intended to sensitize east African nations to the risk of a bird flu pandemic and its possible effects on their people, is to be followed later this month by another in Rwanda that will look at strategies for combatting the virus.

The battle will be fraught with difficulty as cash-strapped governments in Africa lack the resources, trained veterinary staff, crisis-management expertise and, in some cases, political will, to act quickly and effectively.

"In Asia, the infrastructures are much better than here, the veterinarians quickly mobilize resources," said Duncan Mwangi, an immunologist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi.

"In some parts of Kenya, we don't even know the weather forecast, so imagine how we can identify the disease," ILRI spokeswoman Susan MacMillan said.

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