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W Africans chew hedgehogs as bird flu bites

Written by: Staff

ABIDJAN, May 13: Smoked antelope, hedgehog and bush rat sales at Madeleine Aka's Abidjan market stall have never been so brisk.

''There is a huge demand for bush meat ever since the government said there was bird flu in Abidjan,'' said Aka, sitting on a stool in a muddy market place in the populous Yopougon district of Ivory Coast's main city.

Last week, veterinary authorities confirmed Ivory Coast had the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has killed more than 100 people around the world since 2003.

So far West Africa has no confirmed human infections, though across the continent five Egyptians have died from bird flu.

And Djibouti said on Thursday a 2-year-old girl had caught H5N1 in sub-Saharan Africa's first human case, as it became Africa's seventh country to confirm the presence of the virus.

World Health Organisation officials fear that in West Africa human cases may have simply gone undetected due to inadequate health services.

Antelope, snails and agouti -- rabbit-sized rodents also called bush rats or grasscutters -- have long been enjoyed as delicacies in Ivory Coast and nearby countries. But bush meat traders say demand has soared since the government started culling chickens and banned poultry sales in much of Abidjan.

''Mushroom consumption has also increased,'' Aka said.

''Customers ask for them because they are cheaper than meat. I'm selling nearly 8,000 CFA francs (16 dollars) of mushrooms a day now.

A few months ago I was selling 1,500 to 2,000 CFA francs a day.'' Nutritionists say mushrooms are rich in essential amino acids, making them a good substitute for chicken meat and eggs, which are important dietary components for many Africans.

Traders and shoppers say some other alternatives have become more difficult to come by for the average household as demand for other meat and fish increases across the region, even in countries which have so far escaped the virus' spread.

''Previously I could easily feed my family fish for 1,500 CFA francs. But now it is difficult, even for 2,500 CFA,'' said Khadjidja, a mother of five shopping in N'Djamena in landlocked Chad, which consumes a lot of fish from Lake Chad.

Residents in other countries say prices for fish and beef have shot up due to bird flu. As far south as Gabon in central Africa, the price of meat has surged by a third to 2 dollars per kg, according to the state statistics body. Demand for chicken has plummeted. ''A few months ago we were slitting the throats of 3,000 chickens a month. Now we're hardly doing 1,000, and all because of this bird flu which has not even arrived in Chad,'' said Abdelaziz, who manages an eatery called ''The Youngsters' Place''.


Some have not been scared off chicken and eggs, but have become more careful about their eating habits.

''I'm still eating them, but I make sure they are well cooked,'' said Joel Kuegan, a radio presenter in Benin. The WHO says poultry is safe to eat if thoroughly cooked to at least 70 degrees Celsius (158 Fahrenheit).

''Even when I buy cooked eggs or grilled chicken in town, I cook it again at home,'' Kuegan said.

But for many Africans bird flu is just another threat to precarious life eked out on the continent amid widespread poverty, hunger and a myriad of diseases.

''There is a kind of obsession about bird flu, but some people are still eating chicken, saying that only God can end a man's life on earth. That's African fatalism,'' said Chadian sociologist Beosso Djerabe.

Nigerian street trader Benjamin Ajayi said he, like many Africans, could hardly afford chicken.

''But bird flu or not, if I get chicken even now, I will gladly eat it,'' he said.


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