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Africa must join fight against bird flu-WHO

Written by: Staff

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 24 (Reuters) Africa must find resources to back international efforts to stop the spread of bird flu and help prevent a human pandemic, the World Health Organisation said, as Ivory Coast declared a new outbreak.

African nations cannot afford to ignore the threat of H5N1 bird flu, which can kill people, and should make early investments to detect and wipe out the virus in poultry and wild birds, Alan Hay, director of the WHO Influenza Centre told Reuters yesterday.

''The danger is that you might have something where it could be smouldering and then all of a sudden it shows up in the human population,'' Hay said on the sidelines of the Roche Diagnostics Forum, which focuses in healthcare in Africa, in Johannesburg.

''We know it's a difficult task and asking a lot, but surveillance (is more cost effective) than dealing with a pandemic.'' Ivory Coast declared a new outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu yesterday, the first in the West African country since it was first detected there in April.

Two turkeys from a flock of 20 were found dead on November 9 in Abatta, a lagoon-side village on the outskirts of the economic capital Abidjan. Around eight more died over the next few days, a government veterinary official said.

''We are trying to make sure this case doesn't spread and we are compensating owners of birds as we cull,'' Dr Yao N'Dri, regional director of animal and fishery resources, told Reuters.

Poultry outside the 3 km perimeter and in Abidjan would be vaccinated, he said.

Demand for chicken plummeted in war-divided Ivory Coast when the first cases of the virus were detected in April, although an Abidjan disc jockey, DJ Lewis, quickly shot to fame by inventing a catchy bird flu song and dance making light of the disease.

MUTANT FEARS Health officials' main concern is that if undetected the virus could mutate into a form that passes easily among humans, sparking a deadly pandemic similar to the Spanish flu in the early 1900s that claimed tens of millions of lives.

The spread of bird flu could also have devastating economic consequences, particularly in rural areas, in the event of mass culls to curb the spread of the disease or if international trade restrictions were imposed.

The WHO has agreed to help establish regional centres focused on avian flu in five nations in sub-Saharan Africa -- Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Madagascar and Kenya -- where ''surveillance is less than adequate,'' said Hays.

He stressed the onus was on national governments to muster enough resources to keep the centres going in the world's poorest continent where health facilities are often basic and diseases can go undiagnosed.

Bird flu, which originated in Asia, is known to have infected at least 250 people and killed more than 150 of them.

Egypt is the only African country to have confirmed deaths -- seven in total.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Ivory Coast are among countries which have reported the presence of H5N1 in poultry and birds.

Reuters SBA VP0705

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