1. Home
  2. Africa

Bird flu specialists focus on Africa, Asia

[Zambia] Jennifer Mwale says sales are down because of the bird flu panic. [Date picture taken: 06/23/2006] Nebert Mulenga/IRIN
The disease has been confirmed in chickens in Juba.
The people most likely to contract the deadly strain of flu that infects poultry and wild birds are those living in close proximity to the animals, which is why experts are focusing attention on developing countries.

“Currently the greatest risk of an outbreak is in Asia followed by Africa,“ said Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and a specialist on avian flu.

Speaking to IRIN on Thursday at an international bird flu conference in Mali, Domenech said that the worst-case scenario is that the explosion of outbreaks that occurred between October 2005 and May 2006 in 50 mostly developing countries were to restart and that the systems set up to control the outbreaks were to fail.

At least 240 million birds have been culled since the first reported outbreak of the disease in late 2003. So far only 258 people are known to have contracted the illness but half of them have died.

If the virus were to start infecting humans easily scientists fear it could spread quickly to populations throughout the world and millions of people could die.

Asked to predict where the next outbreaks are likely to occur, Domenech said Indonesia is high on the list because a comprehensive system to monitor and cull infected birds has not yet been established. An effective system has been created in China, but with more than five billion ducks and chickens living in close proximity to humans, the risk there also remains real.

Domenech said that ducks in China are particularly worrying because scientists have found that some are “permanent reservoirs” for avian flu, meaning that they survive the disease and spread it to other birds as well as humans.

Also the risk of contamination between domestic and wild birds is high in China, he said. “In the rice paddies you see ducks, wild birds and humans all in close proximity,” Domenech said.

In Turkey, where there was an outbreak in 2005, people live with ducks inside their homes in winter to keep the animals warm.

Evaluating the risks of bird flu outbreaks is particularly difficult in Africa, Domenech said. Outbreaks like those that occurred earlier this year in seven African countries could reappear, although he said this is less likely in Nigeria where authorities were effective in killing off infected birds.

Domenech noted that human contact with poultry varies greatly in different parts of the developing world. In Thailand, 80 percent of poultry are produced in industrial-scale poultry farms, which are largely bio-secure, while in Cambodia 80 percent of poultry production is small scale.

Africa doesn’t have the huge poultry populations that Asia has, Domenech said. Also risks of contamination between wild birds and poultry might be lower in Africa because there is less contact than in Asia.

However, the illegal trade in poultry and exotic birds could be a cause of outbreaks in Africa, he said. Also many Africans live with chickens in their backyards, making contamination between animals and humans more likely, Domenech said.

Furthermore, most African countries do not have the capacity to respond to outbreaks and thus when one occurs it may become difficult to contain.

Domenech also said that surveillance of wild birds in Africa is more difficult because they have natural predators such as vultures. “Many wild birds might have died from the disease without anyone knowing,” he said.

“We are actually surprised not to have seen outbreaks already in areas with many migratory birds such as in deltas of the Senegal and Niger rivers and in East Africa’s Rift Valley,” Domenech said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.