Credits: All from AP - from left: Martin Mejia (Lima 2000), David de la Paz (Mexico City 1999), Jose Luis Magana (Mexico City 1998), Nasser Nasser (Ramallah 2002), Srdjan Ilic (Kosovo 1998) & Nasser Nasser (Ramallah 2000).
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NIGERIA: Bird flu fears decline, but experts warn against complacency

KANO, 15 May 2006 (IRIN) - At the livestock section of the main market in Kano city, northern Nigeria, the fear of bird flu has faded as buyers and sellers haggle for the best prices for chickens, turkeys and ducks.

Three months after Africa’s first cases were reported in northern Nigeria, bird flu is now all but a memory for most Nigerians. Officials say the number of reported avian flu infections have declined but most ordinary Nigerians consider the bird flu threat over.

“The end of the bird flu controversy is a big relief because my business has now returned to normal,” said Inua Abdullahi, a chicken seller, as he concluded a bargain with a customer.

Kano was the worst hit area in Nigeria when Africa’s first cases of bird flu were reported in February. Tens of thousands of birds were culled across the state as veterinary experts and poultry farmers battled to contain the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus which can kill humans.

The poultry trade all but collapsed as a panicked public gave up chicken menus. The situation in Kano was replicated in more than one third of Nigeria’s 36 states as the virus spread over the next several weeks.

“Returning to business fully will take time,” said Awalu Haruna, secretary of the Kano State Poultry Farmers Association. “Most of the money we invested in the business came from loans obtained from banks. We are still struggling to pay our debts before and waiting for most of the relief packages promised by government.”

Government officials report that the situation is improving. “There have been no new outbreaks in the last one month,” said Junaid Maina, director of livestock in Nigeria’s agriculture ministry.

While cases have previously been reported in 13 states in addition to Abuja, the federal capital, only three states presently have active bird flu cases: Bauchi, Kano and Kaduna - all in the country’s north.

Too soon for complacency

International experts warn that it is too soon for Nigerians to drop their guard as this could spark another round of infections, creating the very conditions that made the spread of bird flu possible in the first place.

“When Nigeria got hit by the virus it was a big shock. And when people are shocked, after a while they try to adapt and begin to forget the experience,” said William Amanfu, animal health officer for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome. “But that does not remove the danger.”

All the communication strategies outlined by international health experts as key to rolling back the spread of H5N1 still need to be sustained to ensure the target of eradicating bird flu is achieved, said Amanfu.

“There has to be constant exchange of information from the political leadership all the way down to the villager about the public health measures necessary,” he said.

For Nigeria reasons to be wary include the fact that the virus eventually covered all regions of the country, from north to south and east to west. Cases have also been reported in immediate neighbours Cameroon and Niger as well nearby Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire.

“All it will take is for the virus to cross back from neighbouring countries or spread out again from places within where it is still active,” said a veterinary expert in an FAO team working in Nigeria.

Livestock director Maina is confident steps already taken by the government will help early detection and prevention of further spread of H5N1. A total of 117 surveillance points have been set up across Africa’s most populous country of more than 126 million people.

“We are taking samples and sending them to our regional and central laboratories for testing,” he said, referring to five laboratories in three northern cities and two southern cities that can detect the virus in addition to the National Veterinary Research Institute in Jos, central Nigeria.

Non-payment of compensation a grave problem

The government has also paid out compensations to poultry farmers to help cushion the losses they suffered as a result. But there have been criticisms that most of the efforts have been targeted at large-scale, commercial poultry farmers, leaving out backyard poultry keepers who keep more than 60 percent of Nigeria’s estimated 140 million chickens, according to the FAO.

“I lost eight hens that were my main source of income and got no compensation,” said Lagos housewife Amina Abubakar, who said the money supplemented her husband’s meagre wages as a guard.

Among the poor in both urban and rural areas fowls typically live in close proximity with humans, other birds like ducks and turkey as well as other animals like goats and sheep. Exports warn that such situations increase not only the risk of animal-to-human infections but also the chances that a strain of the virus will emerge that could be passed among humans, creating the dreaded flu pandemic.

FAO official Amanfu said the international agency has recognised that poverty alleviation is a key step in the efforts to help prevent the spread of bird flu. For the poor in rural villages it will entail measures to ensure that children who play with chickens do not get infected and compensation paid if their animals have to be culled to check bird flu, he said.