Fears grow that Nigeria bird flu 'may be extensive'

A deadly strain of bird flu may have emerged in eight of Nigeria’s 36 states, authorities said yesterday, amid concerns the virus had been spreading long before officials knew it was in Africa.

Also yesterday, authorities began screening workers from a northern Nigerian farm where Africa’s first documented cases of the H5N1 strain were confirmed last week – after thousands of birds had died. But authorities lacked testing equipment and workers appeared reluctant to come forward.

Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo and another top health official told reporters the five new states with suspected H5N1 were: Abuja, where the capital is located; Katsina, Nasarawa, Yobe and Jigawa.

If the cases are confirmed, they would bring the number of states affected to eight. It has been confirmed in three northern states – Kaduna, Kano and Plateau.

Katsina state Information Commissioner Abdu Haro Mashi said a Nigerian veterinary institute was testing six dead chickens from a breeding farm in the city of Katsina. The results could be available by the end of the week, Mashi said.

After the six birds died, the rest of the 3,000 fowl there were destroyed, he said.

Barry Schoub, executive director of South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said the virus probably has spread over a much more extensive area in Nigeria and that he expected to see large-scale destruction of birds there.

“The Nigeria case is very, very concerning because the spread in poultry appears to have been going on for quite some time and may well be more extensive,” Schoub told reporters in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“So you would have an established, infected poultry population to which the human population is exposed and that population gets quite extensive exposure to poultry.”

He said destroying birds was the most effective way to stop the spread of the infection in developing countries that did not have facilities such as those in Europe, where poultry is being kept indoors to avoid contact with water infected by migrating wild birds.

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 88 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003, but no human cases have been confirmed in Africa so far.

On Sunday, samples taken from a Nigerian family with two sick children suspected of contracting bird flu were sent abroad for testing, said Abdulsalam Nasidi, a federal Health Ministry official who visited them Sunday.

Nasidi gave no details on the family’s size and declined to say where the tests were sent. He said the children ”are in fairly good condition ... but we are still observing them.”

Monday, doctors examined 20 workers at a health clinic in the northern ton of Jaji, near the farm where H5N1 in Africa was first confirmed.

But they lacked proper testing materials, which they said a World Health Organisation team would bring by today, and about 140 other workers from the farm in the town of Jaji could not be located for testing.

Julius Gajere, leading the team checking the workers in Jaji, could not immediately say whether any of the farm workers were showing bird flu symptoms. He said he had not found any clear signs of bird flu in the handful of workers he had personally examined.

Scores of workers failed to present themselves for tests. After years of repressive and corrupt military rule, many Nigerians shy away from any contact with officialdom.

Ibrahim Hassan, who worked at Sambawa Farms before it was quarantined last week, said his co-workers were worried about being taken away somewhere by the health officials if they tested positive for bird flu.

“Many people are afraid to come” he said.

Gajere asked workers assembled for tests to persuade their colleagues to come for testing today.

“It is in their own interest and ... they are not in any kind of danger for coming for the screening,” he said.

Experts from the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in Nigeria on Sunday with equipment and protective clothing for 200 Nigerian health officials who will kill birds in the north of the country, Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello said.

They were joined by other officials from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said the FAO chief for Nigeria, Helder Muteia.

Nigerian officials have tried to contain the disease by burning chickens and other birds suspected of being infected across the north.

But poultry markets continue to operate and birds are being shipped around the country despite international recommendations to stop those practices.

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