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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 October 2005, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Bird flu 'set to hit Africa next'
Image of migrating birds
Migratory birds could carry the virus to Africa
Africa will be hit next by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, experts predict.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization says birds could carry avian flu into the Middle East and east Africa within weeks.

An article in Nature warns that the health and economic consequences could be even worse than for South East Asia.

Middle Eastern states are monitoring migrating birds, and some African countries have banned poultry imports from parts of Asia hit by bird flu.

Devastating effect

Kenya's director of medical service James Nyikal launched a public awareness campaign on last week, saying: "We have strengthened disease surveillance to watch out for the flu virus if it was to appear."

Uganda's director of animal resources and disease prevention, William Olaho, said: "Things are serious and we are totally stopping imports of poultry and poultry products until the situation normalises."

Experts believe rural communities around the lakes of the Rift Valley region in east Africa, which rely heavily on poultry farming to survive, could be hardest hit.

Ward Hagemeijer of conservation organisation Wetlands International in the Netherlands said: "The impact in Africa will be dramatically different from the impact in Europe."

Lea Borkenhagen, sustainable-living development manager for the charity Oxfam, agreed: "Losing poultry would have a devastating effect on livelihoods in the area."

Every new outbreak also increases the chance that the H5N1 virus could mutate to spread easily between humans and trigger a pandemic. If this happens, experts predict there could be anything between two million and 50 million deaths worldwide.

The Nature report says there is concern that not enough is being done to look out for bird flu in Africa. It says few countries in the area have systems in place to test for H5N1.

Kenyan ornithological experts, along with US and Egyptian scientists, are to start testing migratory birds in the Rift Valley region of Kenya for H5N1 on Friday.

Muchane Muchai, head of National Museum of Kenya, said: "The researchers will continue to watch the birds within migratory routes until March to see whether they have the virus."

East African nations meet next month in Rwanda to develop a regional bird flu strategy.

The H5N1 strain remained largely in South-East Asia until this summer, when Russia and Kazakhstan both reported outbreaks
Scientists fear it may be carried by migrating birds to Europe and Africa but say it is hard to prove a direct link with bird migration
UK case discovered in quarantine, so disease-free status unaffected

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