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Nigeria delays taking action on bird flu

Published on 23 February, 2006, Last updated at 05:11 GMT

13th Feb, 2006: LAGOS - Nigeria ignored international recommendations for stopping bird flu, keeping poultry markets open yesterday and letting people move their birds around most of the country unrestricted.

"We don't want to cause a situation where there will be much panic or alarm," said a spokesman for Nigeria's Agriculture Ministry.

Officials are awaiting word on whether the virus has already infected people in Africa's most populous country. Test results are pending on two sick children near a farm where the H5N1 strain was first detected among poultry. Their families are also being tested.

Meanwhile, European officials are putting strict controls in place after the virus was found in wild swans in Italy, Greece and Bulgaria -- the first time its presence has been detected in the European Union. Its arrival had been predicted for months, since the virus has marched steadily westward, carried by migrating birds.

Swans have become an important first marker indicating the presence of bird flu because they are very susceptible to the virus and because they are so large, so people notice when they die, said Dr. Juan Lubroth, a senior veterinarian at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

The Italian outbreak seems to have been a model of early detection, underlining how bird flu can be controlled in countries that have the money and scientific resources. Recent outbreaks in poor countries like Nigeria, Turkey and Iraq have percolated for months before being discovered, allowing the virus to spread to commercial chicken flocks and humans.

While the H5N1 virus currently does not readily spread to humans or among them, scientists worry it could acquire that ability through naturally occurring biological processes, setting off a worldwide pandemic. To date, only about 160 people have become infected through close contact with sick birds and about half of them have died.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with about 600 million of the world's poorest people, is particularly ill suited to deal with a health crisis. With weak and impoverished governments in regions where many people keep chickens for food, experts say mass killings to help control bird flu will be hard to carry out properly.

Health authorities worry the virus may have already spread undetected elsewhere in Africa. The virus has been confirmed at five farms in northern Nigeria, killing at least 100,000 birds. Nigeria has about 130 million people and 140 million poultry.

Experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control arrived Saturday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, with protective clothing for 200 Nigerian health officials who will slaughter birds. Two officials from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization also arrived to help determine a plan of action with local authorities.


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