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Countries prepare to control possible spread of avian flu

[Tajikistan] Woman holding chicken CARE Tajikistan
Birds could carry the avian flu - FAO
Ethiopia on Thursday became the latest eastern African state to ban poultry imports from countries hit by the deadly strain of bird flu, a government official said. The ban comes amid fears that the H5N1 virus could spread to Africa from Europe with migratory birds. The move by Ethiopia follows similar measures by Uganda and Kenya. Ethiopia, one of the most populous nation in Africa with 77 million people, could be devastated by an outbreak, said agriculture ministry official Mulugeta Debalkew. "If bird flu hits Ethiopia it would have serious implications for the economy and the health risks to the population," he said. "If the virus spreads to the country we do not have any controlling mechanisms so the only way we can protect ourselves is to be prepared," he added. Chicken imports from Asian nations as well as European countries like Romania and Turkey had been banned, Mulugeta said, despite Ethiopia's relatively low level of poultry importation. Ethiopian agriculture officials have also banned the transportation of poultry machinery shipped through Addis Ababa from Asia to businesses in Europe and America. Last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi put the country on alert. "This is a new development and has recently been identified as a potential problem," he told journalists at a press conference. "We are in touch with the relevant international organisations to see what we can do to protect ourselves," he added. The health ministry has also issued guidelines to the country's nine regions to be on the look out for signs of the potentially fatal virus. Ethiopia has only one testing laboratory, so any cases of dead birds would have to be sent abroad. According to the agriculture ministry, Ethiopia imports more than a million chickens a year although the majority comes from Egypt and the Middle East, which have so far not been affected. Ethiopian officials will also be inspecting poultry products from all nations to minimize the risk of transmission, Mulugeta said. On Tuesday the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said birds could carry avian flu into the Middle East and east Africa within weeks. Experts believe Rift Valley countries of Ethiopia Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are at high risk for outbreaks because millions of migratory birds fly south to warmer climes during the European winter. UN officials believe rural communities around the lakes of the Rift Valley region in East Africa, which rely heavily on poultry farming to survive, could be hardest hit. Uganda has banned poultry imports from all foreign countries including those where the outbreaks of the virus has not been confirmed. "The current threat is serious and the ban affects all importation from all countries," William Olaho, director of animal resources and disease prevention at the ministry of agriculture, told IRIN. He said that the agriculture ministry had started to sensitise the public about the disease. It was also developing a comprehensive strategy that would prepare the country to handle the disease if it were to affect Uganda. Kenya livestock and fisheries ministry last week imposed "preventative measures" and prohibited the "importation of domestic and wild birds and their products from countries affected by bird flu". "Veterinary technical personnel at all entry points into the country have been put on high alert to thoroughly inspect all domestic birds and their products being imported into the country," the ministry said in a statement issued on 18 October. Kenya's health ministry said on 21 October that it had strengthened its laboratory diagnostic capacity to detect any suspected cases of avian flu. "As a country, we have developed a strategy that limits opportunity for human infection," Kenya's Director of Medical Services, James Nyikal, said in a statement. "This will be achieved through the rapid detection of poultry disease outbreaks and the emergency introduction of control measures, including the destruction of all infected or exposed poultry, stock, and the proper disposal of carcasses," he added. Other African countries have also banned poultry imports, including Togo, Senegal and the Republic of Congo. The African Union, a 53 nation economic and political bloc, has also expressed fears. "Although less than 120 people globally have contracted avian flu, the disease poses a very big challenge for Africa than any other part of the world," AU Commission Chairperson Alpha Oumar Konare, said in Addis Ababa. Scientists fear that the H5N1 strain could mutate and pass between humans. The H5N1 virus, which has killed 60 people in the Far East, has been confirmed in Romania after being identified in Turkey. The flu does not spread easily between people, however, but those who come in contact with sick birds can contract it and scientists say millions of people worldwide could die if the strain mutates into a disease communicable among humans.

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

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