The Paris-based OIE said it had detected a highly pathogenic form of the
virus after testing at a laboratory in the Italian city of Padua. Suspicions
about the virus were raised after thousands of chickens died on farms in three
northern states of Africa's most populous country.
Scientists fear that H5N1, which has killed at least 88 people in seven
countries since it re-emerged in late 2003, could mutate into a form that passes
easily from person to person, sparking a human influenza pandemic.
So far, victims have contracted the disease through close contact with
infected birds. Cases of human infection are relatively few compared with the
millions of birds that have contracted the disease.
The outbreak could have devastating consequences in Nigeria, where millions
keep chickens in their backyards.
If the situation in Nigeria gets out of control, it will have a
devastating impact on the poultry population in the region, it will seriously
damage the livelihoods of millions of people and it will increase the exposure
of humans to the virus, said Samuel Jutzi, a director of the U.N.'s Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.
Nigerian Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello said there had not been any poultry
workers infected so far. However, it would be difficult for authorities to know
this for sure as mortality rates in impoverished Nigeria are among the highest
in the world and people are often buried without any formal medical check.
Bello said the government would cull all chickens suspected to be infected
with bird flu and quarantine all suspect farms. The government has budgeted
between 1.7 and 2.0 billion naira (13-15.5 million) in compensation for culled
The outbreak affected a commercial ... unit kept in battery cages, in
Kaduna state (Jaji village), in the northern part of the country, the OIE
Bello said the infected chicken from Kaduna state was first sent for testing
on January 16. It came as a day-old chick from a farm in neighboring Kano state,
and another case has been found in Plateau state, which also borders Kaduna, he
SPREAD OF THE VIRUS
Juan Lubroth, senior officer for infectious diseases with the FAO, said the
genetic composition of the virus found in Nigeria was similar to the strain
detected in Asia and Turkey.
The fact that the virus is able to spread very rapidly is of great
concern, he said. A team of international experts will travel to Nigeria
to advise local authorities.
Bello blamed illegal poultry imports for the outbreak.
In Kano city, farmers were selling chickens at less than half the normal
price from farms where birds have been dying.
I am confused. I lost 10 birds yesterday on my little farm and I cannot
afford to lose more, so I came to the market to dispose of many of my birds at
these ridiculous prices, said Ismail Musa.
He was sitting in a crowded Kano market with 10 baskets that each contained
about 20 live birds.
Migratory birds have been blamed for the spread of the virus westwards from
Asia, but it is not clear how it reached Nigeria, with a poultry population of
140 million, after showing up most recently in eastern Europe, Iraq and Turkey.
Experts said it was important to act quickly to try to contain the virus.
What is most important now is not how it got into Nigeria but how it
can be prevented from leaving Nigeria, said Associate Professor Phil
Hockey, ornithologist at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
in Cape Town.
The prospect of bird flu loose in sub-Saharan Africa is a scary one
because of the way that human and domestic bird populations are so closely
intermingled, he told Reuters.
Africans normally buy chickens live, often transport them in public transport
and kill them at home.
(additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Tom Ashby and Felix Onuah in Abuja,
Silvia Aloisi in Rome, Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg)