Nigerian man walks past chicken roaming on streets of Abuja. An outbreak could have devastating consequences in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where millions of people have chickens in their backyards.
Afolabi Sotunde  /  Reuters
A Nigerian man walks past a chicken roaming on the streets of Abuja on Feb. 6. An outbreak of bird flu could have devastating consequences in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where millions of people have chickens in their backyards.
updated 2/8/2006 2:37:04 PM ET 2006-02-08T19:37:04

The deadly H5N1 bird flu virus has been detected on a large commercial chicken farm in Nigeria — the first reported outbreak in Africa, the World Organization for Animal Health said Wednesday.

The outbreak appears to be restricted to birds, and no human infections have been reported, the Paris-based organization said.

Nigeria said the outbreak was on a farm in Jaji, a village in the northern state of Kaduna. Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello told reporters in Abuja that the deadly strain of the virus was detected in samples taken Jan. 16 from birds on the farm.

“The significance is that it’s a completely new continent that we need to be looking at,” said Alex Thiermann, an expert for the World Organization for Animal Health, known as the OIE, said of the virus’ arrival on the world’s poorest continent.

All 46,000 chicken, geese and ostriches on the Nigerian farm have been killed and their bodies disposed of, Thiermann said. Nigerian authorities have banned the movement of birds and people off the farm.

Officials also are investigating whether birds were transferred to other farms in the past 21 days, and they, too, are being quarantined, he said.

Thiermann said it was not yet known how the virus entered Nigeria, but migratory waterfowl likely played a role because the country is on a “major flyway.” No cases of bird flu have been reported elsewhere in Africa.

A laboratory in Padua, Italy, identified the H5N1 strain in the Nigerian birds, OIE said in a statement, adding that further tests were being carried out to determine how closely the Nigerian strain matched the H5N1 strain detected elsewhere in the world.

The Italian Health Ministry said the bird flu strain is very similar to those found in Siberia and Mongolia.

88 confirmed deaths
Bird flu began ravaging poultry across Asia in 2003, forcing the slaughter of more than 100 million birds and jumping to humans. The World Health Organization has confirmed 88 deaths from bird flu out of a total of 165 cases of human infection. Almost all the cases have been in Asia, but the disease recently has been detected in Europe and the Middle East.

The Chinese government said Wednesday a 26-year-old woman has contracted bird flu. The confirmation brings to at least 11 the number of people in China who have been infected. Two of them have died, according to WHO.

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Though all the people who contracted the disease so far are believed to have been infected through contact with sick birds, experts are concerned the disease could mutate into a form easily spread from human to human, potentially triggering a global pandemic.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with about 600 million of the world’s poorest people, is particularly ill-equipped to deal with a major health crisis. With weak and impoverished government institutions in regions where many people keep chickens for badly needed food, experts say any mass killings of the animals — often a first step in controlling bird flu — will be difficult to pull off.

Thiermann said some African countries have “very weak” veterinary systems.

International help needed
The World Health Organization said Nigeria has about 140 million poultry and the country’s overtaxed veterinary services needs international help. It called on other African countries act quickly against any suspected outbreaks.

“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, head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Animal Production and Health Division. “It will seriously damage the livelihoods of millions of people and it will increase the exposure of humans to the virus.”

Two other west African nations — Gabon and Mauritania — imposed measures Wednesday to fight potential outbreaks in those countries.

Nigeria, Africa’s most-populous nation with 130 million people, said it would work to halt the flow of any sick birds into uninfected zones.

“We shall quarantine and stamp out all livestock in any farm suspected of having avian influenza and pay full compensation to the owners,” Bello said.

Thiermann said that was a good start, and a team of experts to assess and provide technical advice will leave for Nigeria in a few days, although more help was needed.

“We feel that they are doing everything they can and they certainly need help,” he said of Nigeria.

Nigerian officials said Wednesday that initial tests on chickens that mysteriously died in Kano, a state neighboring Kaduna, showed no signs of bird flu. Salihu Jibrin, head of the state’s livestock department said at least 60,000 birds have died in Kano state in recent weeks. Tests were ongoing.

Awalu Haruna, secretary of the Poultry Farmers’ Association of Kano, accused the government of being slow to respond to the epidemic of poultry deaths in the state.

“The government should have quarantined the affected farms to prevent further spread,” he said. “But as I speak this has not been done. There is still movement of humans and birds in and out of these farms.”

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