Christian Tsoumou - REUTERS News Service
Delegates to a World Health Organisation (WHO) conference in Brazzaville warned a shortage of money and scientific know-how could leave Africa struggling to detect and combat bird flu, as United Nations officials say the risk of a pandemic is growing.
We need to get a plan in place as quickly as possible which would allow us to react efficiently against this pandemic which could also touch our region, WHO Director-General for Africa Luis Gomez Sambo told the opening of the meeting.
The two-day conference grouping more than 140 experts from 43 African countries aims to draft a blueprint for tackling an outbreak in the world's poorest continent.
While the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has not yet been detected in Africa, the close proximity between poultry and humans in towns and villages provide an ideal environment for the virus to jump to humans.
The H5N1 strain is endemic to poultry in parts of Asia where is has killed more than 70 people. It has been found birds in eastern Europe and Kuwait, and at least two children have died of the disease in recent days in Turkey.
There are fears migratory birds could now carry it to Africa, where it could infect backyard poultry.
In Africa, one can expect the risk of human contamination from H5N1 will be the same as in Asia, said a WHO document presented to the Brazzaville conference.
While it remains essentially a disease in birds, scientists fear the virus could mutate into a form that could spread easily between humans, causing a pandemic in which millions could die.
HARD TO DETECT
African countries like war-torn Somalia or Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, lack the laboratories necessary to be able to identify the virus in birds and act quickly to prevent it spreading to humans, the WHO said.
Existing high rates of mortality among the continent's backyard birds would make it hard to detect the virus. Unaware of the risks, villagers would tend to eat birds showing symptoms of the disease, the organisation warned.
Should the illness spread to humans, government health services do not have the money to pay for treatments.
Nor would African governments have the resources to pay for the culling of bird populations infected with the disease, leaving poor villagers at risk of starvation.
For African states and governments, there are real problems to confront a possible bird flu epidemic, financial, material and human, said Jean Pierre Bangamingo, a WHO consultant on community health in central Africa.
All that requires financial resources our governments do not have. We welcome this meeting, to find the financial resources to tackle it in Africa, Bangamingo said.
Conclusions from the conference are expected to spell out a role for multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and African Development Bank in combatting the disease in Africa.
UN officials have said about 1.4 billion is needed from donors to finance the next phase of the global campaign against the virus. This included gearing up veterinary services and preparing expert teams for quick deployment to outbreaks.