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West Africa nations draft plan to fight bird flu

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DAKAR, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Ministers and experts from across West Africa met today to draft a plan to detect, fight and contain the bird flu virus which was found on several poultry farms in Nigeria this month.

The H5N1 bird flu strain has killed 92 people in Asia and the West Asia since 2003 and triggered the culling of millions of domestic fowl.

Experts fear that in Africa, where chickens live in millions of homes, the virus could spread rapidly and largely undetected due to a scarcity of health, veterinary and laboratory services.

''First of all we need laboratory analysis,'' Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who convened the two-day summit in the capital Dakar, said in an interview with Reuters and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The meeting aimed to establish an observation network across West Africa to ensure prompt testing of sick poultry, Wade said.

He suggested countries bordering Nigeria such as Niger and Benin should have observation centres to help detect any spread of the disease, with centres also in Senegal and Mali.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said bird flu posed a threat to regional economic growth and trade.

Niger, which borders bird-flu affected northern Nigeria, had seen a 50 to 60 percent drop in poultry sales in the capital Niamey, threatening an industry worth million a year in one of the poorest countries on earth, it said.

''The situation is worrying in Nigeria, where several states of the federation have been affected, and there is a real threat to many (ECOWAS) member states,'' ECOWAS Executive Secretary Mohammed Ibn Chambas said in a speech delivered on his behalf to the meeting.

APPEAL TO U N The U N Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said today the virus was spreading in poultry in Nigeria and could cause a regional disaster.

Wade highlighted the threat to West Africa posed by birds migrating from Asia, the continent hardest hit by bird flu, and Europe, where the H5N1 strain has been detected this month in wild birds in a number of countries.

''There are millions and millions of birds coming from Asia, South Africa and Europe and we are wondering what we can do with that,'' he said, adding that he had written to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan today to seek help regarding the threat from migrating birds.

Wetlands in Senegal and its neighbours Mauritania and Gambia attract large numbers of rare birds.

''We manage these parks for humanity, in the interests of ecological balance and biodiversity. Humanity must face up to its responsibilities,'' Wade told delegates as he declared today's meeting open.

The conference aimed to discuss how large-scale vaccinations or culls should be carried out in the event of H5N1 spreading, and to improve cooperation with the international institutions involved in global efforts to fight bird flu, Wade said.

Last month international donors pledged .9 billion to help poor countries improve health and veterinary services and improve global surveillance systems to counter bird flu, but countries must submit funding requests for specific projects.

REUTERS SRS RN2039

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