Bird flu hits Africa as deadly strain kills 40,000 chickens

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A deadly strain of the bird flu virus has killed 40,000 birds on a commercial farm in northern Nigeria, raising fears that the disease has already spread across Africa.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) confirmed yesterday that the first recorded case of H5N1 bird flu in Africa had been found in the northern state of Kaduna, on a farm of 46,000 chickens, geese and ostriches. All the birds have now been killed and farm workers have been placed under quarantine.

Nigeria's Agriculture Minister, Adamu Bello, said flu had been found in samples taken on 16 January from birds on the Jaji farm and sent for analysis in Italy. The Italian health ministry confirmed that the "highly pathological strain" of H5N1 found in Nigeria was similar to those discovered in Siberia and Mongolia.

More than 150,000 birds died recently in Kaduna but vets had assumed they had been killed by Newcastle disease, an illness that kills thousands of chickens each year across Africa but is not fatal to humans. Further tests are being performed to verify the cause of death.

The Nigerian authorities are checking if any birds were transferred from Jaji farm to other areas in the past three weeks. Farmers have been asked to monitor their flocks closely and veterinary surgeons have been ordered to inspect all flocks.

Several thousand birds in the neighbouring state of Kano died recently of mysterious causes, but the authorities insist the carcasses showed no sign of bird flu. So far, there are no known cases of humans catching the infection in Nigeria.

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has sent a team of experts to the region to assess the severity of the situation.

Alex Thiermann at the Paris-based OIE said the development was potentially serious. "We are really not dealing with a backyard operation," he said. "We are dealing with a new continent. We feel that they [the Nigerian authorities] are doing everything they can and they certainly need help."

Experts have been warning for some time that it would be difficult to detect and control bird flu in Africa, where millions of families keep chickens for food and for trading. Mortality rates among these domestic chickens can be as high as 80 per cent, and people are unlikely to report the deaths to authorities. The FAO warned last year that bird flu may be mistaken for Newcastle disease.

There have been fears that migratory birds from Europe and Asia would transport the H5N1 virus to east Africa first, but there have been no reported cases in Kenya, Uganda or Ethiopia, the countries previously considered most susceptible to the disease. Instead, the birds appear to have landed in Nigeria, also on a major migratory route.

In 2004, South Africa culled 4,000 ostriches that were found to have the less serious H5N2 strain. Doctors say that if bird flu does infect humans in Africa, it will ravage populations already weakened by HIV, malaria and malnutrition.

Other west African countries are monitoring ports and land borders. Scientists are also performing random tests on migratory birds.

Bird flu first emerged in Asia in 2003, and later spread to Europe and the Middle East. So far, more than 140 million birds have been killed in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. Eighty-four people living in close proximity to infected poultry have also died.