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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2006, 16:35 GMT
Africa 'too weak' to fight H5N1
By Jill McGivering
BBC News

A woman holds a chicken in Lagos, Nigeria
A bird flu outbreak could have devastating consequences
The arrival of the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus in Africa is causing international experts particular concern.

Officials at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) say Africa's monitoring systems simply are not adequate to cope effectively with outbreaks.

The risk of human cases is also raising questions about the strength of the continent's public health systems.

Slow response

This is exactly what international experts predicted and feared - the H5N1 virus confirmed in Africa. Many are concerned that Africa simply is not able yet to cope with it.

We know that health systems in Africa are already very stretched, dealing with a host of public health problems
Maria Cheng
World Health Organisation

"The reason we've been so concerned is that veterinary systems throughout Africa are weak," said Samuel Jutzi, director of the FAO's Animal Production and Health Division.

Both surveillance and diagnosis systems, he said, were just too weak to be able to respond effectively to an outbreak.

"We're very much concerned," he said. "It appears that in Nigeria it's now identified as a problem but we wonder whether it's too late."

The handling of the case in Nigeria seems to bear out such concerns.


Adequate surveillance systems should mean that anything unusual, like a large number of poultry deaths, is reported immediately - and followed up with strict quarantine and market control measures until the cause is confirmed.

In fact, in the Nigerian case, it took weeks for quarantine to be imposed.

'Backyard' farming

And even now, sick chickens from the area are still being sold in local markets.

There's concern too about the risk of human cases - 80% of African poultry is "backyard" farmed. In other words, small numbers of chickens kept by families.

Lessons learned in South-East Asia show that causes particular problems.

Such small scattered populations are hard to monitor. And backyard farming means a high level of direct contact between chickens and people.

So if human cases appear, how well will Africa's health systems cope?

"We know that health systems in Africa are already very stretched, dealing with a host of public health problems," said Maria Cheng of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"But at the same time, these networks do exist. So they allow us to tap into this infrastructure already for diseases, such as polio, which conduct nationwide immunisation campaigns and have networks of people that can reach everybody at the grassroots level," she said.

The hope is that these existing networks can be exploited as the WHO and others try to spread public information about bird flu.

Network launched

In the meantime, FAO officials are rushing to improve Africa's ability to cope.

Just last week, the launch was held of a new West African network on avian influenza.

This is a scheme designed to help West African countries share information and put pressure on each other to do more.

The FAO's Mr Jutzi says every country should have a veterinary laboratory which reaches international standards so they can do their own initial diagnoses.

At the moment, he says, only "a handful" of countries in West Africa have such facilities.

Veterinary teams too need to be boosted, he says, so they can identify these crises and, when they do, know exactly where to turn.

The FAO has now received extra funding which will make it possible for the West Africa network to be extended throughout the continent.

But all this takes time. Avian flu has already arrived - and the fear is that the rush to prepare is coming far too late.

The UN's bird flu spokesman on the development

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