A Nigerian official has warned that bird flu was fast spreading in the country, and a UN expert said the strain may have surfaced in a second African country.
The H5N1 strain was first confirmed in Africa last week in fowl on a large commercial farm near Jaji, in Kaduna state.
Since then it has been confirmed in two other northern states in Africa’s most populous country and suspected in five, raising concern that Nigeria is not taking the necessary measures to combat the disease.
“We have received reports that the disease is fast spreading to other farms across the state,” said Shehu Bawa, the head of a bird flu committee in Nigeria’s northern Kano state.
In Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbour, officials are investigating the deaths of two birds.
A team led by Bawa supervised the destruction of thousands of birds on five Nigerian farms yesterday and is set to continue today.
At Danbare village, farm workers slit birds’ throats before dumping them in a pit and setting them on fire. The workers were wearing gloves to handle the chickens – a precaution which many had not been taking on previous days.
At a health clinic in Jaji, officials said that checks a day earlier of 20 farm workers had not turned up any signs of the disease. Health workers, who continued their examinations yesterday, were only checking for symptoms as they lacked the equipment to test blood samples.
Julius Gajere, the doctor running the Jaji tests, said that most of the 160 farm workers had not turned up to be tested, as many were likely fearful of the tests and what might become of them if results showed they were ill with bird flu.
Health officials fear H5N1 could evolve into a virus that can be transmitted easily between people and become a pandemic. Most human cases of the disease so far have been linked to contact with infected birds.
H5N1 has killed at least 91 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003. No human cases have been confirmed in Africa, and bird cases have been confirmed only in Nigeria.
But Niger, the world’s least-developed nation, has said it was investigating two birds found dead in a market in Zinder, near the Nigerian border.
Juan Lubroth, a senior animal health officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, said experts still do not know if it was avian flu, but “it’s likely that it’s H5N1. It’s highly suspected cases of H5N1.”
Many West African countries have taken measures – such as calling on citizens to be vigilant or banning fowl imports – to try to stop H5N1 from spreading on a continent with scarce means or infrastructure to deal with a massive public health crisis.