Image: Ostrich farm
George Osodi  /  AP file
A policeman takes aim to kill an ostrich suspected of having bird flu virus inside the Sambawa farms in Jaji, Nigeria.
updated 3/1/2006 7:14:40 PM ET 2006-03-02T00:14:40

The peasant farm hands were deeply suspicious as they watched the police marksmen trying to control bird flu kill 168 ostriches the farm had reared over eight years. Days later, when the 160 workers were invited for tests to see if they, too, were infected, nearly everyone fled.

“Most of them feared they would end up like the ostriches, to be shot dead for having the virus,” said one of the more enlightened of the Sambawa Farms workers, Ibrahim Hassan, who turned up promptly for medical checks.

Almost three weeks after tests confirmed Africa’s first cases of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain at a large plantation here in Jaji, a wall of distrust between the government and most of the population is posing a major obstacle to fighting bird flu in Nigeria. The campaign also is hampered by poor infrastructure, lack of resources and vast distances.

International experts have looked askance at Nigeria, where H5N1 is believed to have spread widely before it was detected and has since cropped up in neighboring Niger.

“The Nigeria authorities took a lot of time to react, allowing the virus to escape,” Bernard Vallat, director of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, said Tuesday at a Paris meeting of bird flu experts from some 50 countries. “We won’t get out of the crisis in Africa, notably, in a few months. We have to put in at least three years of effort.”

Monday, Vallat had told the conference the more the virus spreads around the world, “the greater chance of the virus transforming itself into a virus more dangerous for mankind.”

Enlisting the poor in the fight against bird flu is crucial to defeating the disease, the international humanitarian group, Action Aid, said last week. Yet evidence shows the poor are being ignored in many countries, the group said.

In Nigeria, after decades of misrule by corrupt military and civilian regimes, the 70 percent of the population with little education or income has grown wary of all officialdom.

Poor at highest risk
It is the poor who are most at risk from H5N1, which has jumped from chickens to humans in other parts of the world where people, like many Nigerians, live close to their poultry stocks. In Nigeria, more than 60 percent of the poultry is raised in backyards, running freely with goats, sheep and children.

After H5N1 was confirmed in the northern village of Jaji, Kaduna state officials were quick to announce measures, including a policy to exterminate all birds within a 2-mile radius.

Efforts have, however, been concentrated on commercial farms, with little outreach to villages. A similar pattern has been repeated in the entire northern belt of the country where the presence of the virus has been confirmed in eight states in addition to the capital, Abuja.

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Three weeks after the virus was discovered at Sambawa farms, no veterinary or health official had visited Birnin Yaro Gari, the village nearest the large commercial operation, said resident Abdulkadir Birnin.

“Our chickens have been dying for a whole month before we heard the problem was from Sambawa,” Birnin said. “But until now no one has asked us about our health or that of the birds.”

Though government has announced plans for compensation, offering the equivalent of $1.80 per destroyed bird, no officials have come to inquire about the thousands of birds that have died in the village. Villagers insist they will not kill their birds, and instead watch them die.

“When they die we eat them, so that we don’t lose everything,” said Birnin. “We hear they can give us disease but so far nobody has been sick or dead recently.”

Farmers fear losing money
Nigerian news media have reported instances of farmers chasing away veterinary teams that came to kill suspect poultry in villages in Bauchi state, where the virus has also been confirmed. The farmers apparently fear they won’t be compensated.

In Kano, another affected state, some poultry farmers have declared they will resist any attempts to exterminate their poultry until firm compensation arrangements are put in place.

To get farm workers to turn up for medical checks, Kaduna state officials promised to pay their transport fares to a clinic in Jaji. More workers turned up on the second day — only to find the transport fare was not ready. An official apologized for the lapse and promised the money would be paid another day.

Afterward Abdulhamid Abubakar, the top Kaduna health official in charge of the government emergency response team for bird flu, praised government efforts as effective and insisted all complaints were being addressed.

“We are doing everything we are supposed to do,” he said.

But many of the farmworkers were not impressed.

“You can never trust the people in government,” said one who gave his name as Nasiru as he began a 4-mile walk back to his village. “I won’t come back here another day.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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