Glimmers of Hope Seen in Africa Bird Flu Gloom
BAMAKO -- With weak surveillance and grinding poverty, Africa is being declared the new frontier in the fight against bird flu, but some of its states should be able to control the disease, a top animal health expert said.
The world's poorest continent, including badly hit Egypt and Nigeria, is regarded by experts as the weakest link in the worldwide operation to stem infections among birds and head off a potentially devastating human flu pandemic.
"Within the southern part of Africa there are countries, Botswana for example, which would be capable of detecting the virus quickly," Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) said in an interview.
Vallat said Namibia, Swaziland, the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and certain provinces of economic giant South Africa also had the technical capacity to detect any outbreak of bird flu quickly -- regarded as essential for effective control.
Those countries are far from the areas so far infected by the deadly H5N1 virus in West and North Africa, but they offer hope for other countries trying to bring their own surveillance services up to scratch.
Specialists from around the world are meeting in Mali this week to hone their strategies to fight highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu and raise $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion in new funding -- much of which will go to programmes to help Africa detect and eradicate outbreaks of the disease to halt its global spread.
Vallat's OIE is working with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the African Union's InterAfrican Bureau for Animal Resources to improve animal health monitoring systems in Africa, where the H5N1 virus has been detected in eight countries this year.
The OIE is also trying to improve testing capacity by twinning approved laboratories in developed countries with those in poorer countries to build up necessary skills and equipment to conduct proper testing.
For those countries whose early warning systems are inadequate to detect H5N1 and eradicate it quickly through culling, the OIE is building up a stockpile of bird vaccines, both "virtual" stocks guaranteed by a supplier on demand, and physical stocks, including 2 million vaccines just arrived in Mali.
"The situation has improved because of the actions we have taken," Vallat said in the interview late on Wednesday.
EGYPT, NIGERIA STILL THREATS
But despite progress, Vallat said Africa's worst affected countries, Nigeria and Egypt, were battling to control bird flu, and risked triggering another round of infections.
"Today there are only three countries which pose a problem: Indonesia, Nigeria and Egypt," Vallat said.
"The others seem to have controlled the situation, but these three countries have not been able to eradicate animal infections, and so it could start again at any moment."
Indonesia in Asia is the world's worst-affected country, with 57 human deaths so far. Egypt, in north Africa, has had seven human deaths, while Africa's most populated nation, Nigeria has seen recurrent poultry outbreaks but no human deaths.
Scientists worry the H5N1 virus, which can already pass from sick birds to humans, may mutate and become able to jump from person to person, threatening a human flu pandemic.
"Failure by any one country to contain the disease could lead to rapid re-infection in many more countries ... One weak link can lead to a domino effect, undoing all the good that we have achieved so far. Now is no time for complacency," FAO Assistant Director General Alexander Müller said in a statement.