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Deadly Bird Flu Strain Hits Africa

A strain of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus that is highly capable of causing the disease has been found on a large commercial chicken farm in Nigeria, the first reported cases in Africa.

The Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health said Wednesday that Nigeria reported the outbreak on the farm in Jaji, a village in the northern state of Kaduna. Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello confirmed to reporters in Abuja on Wednesday that bird flu was detected in samples taken on Jan. 16 from birds on the Jaji farm.

"We are dealing with a new continent," said Alex Thiermann, an expert for the World Organization for Animal Health, known as the OIE, told the Associated Press in an interview.

Experts are concerned that H5N1, which has caused human as well as bird deaths in Asia and spread to Europe and the Middle East, might mutate into a form spread easily among humans, triggering a pandemic that could kill millions. So far, H5N1 has passed only from birds to humans, not from human to human.

Experts have long been concerned about Africa's ability to deal with a bird flu outbreak. Thiermann noted that some African countries have "very weak" veterinary systems, although he also commended Nigeria's response so far.

In other recent developments:

  • The Turkish Health Ministry said Wednesday that it has released all patients who were confirmed to be infected with bird flu. Out of the 21 people who tested positive for the H5N1 strain in Turkey, four children died last month. All others have been discharged from hospital after recovering, the Health Ministry said Wednesday.
  • Bird flu was suspected in the deaths of a chicken and egret found in Hong Kong, and the fowl were being tested Wednesday for the strain that can be deadly in humans. The tests could take several days, said spokesman Albert Hui of the Agriculture Department. Hong Kong's health secretary said if the H5N1 strain of bird flu is found on more than one local chicken farm in more than one chicken, the government will kill all local chickens.
  • Some 15,000 chickens in northern China have died of bird flu, the government said Wednesday, the first report of the disease on the mainland in more than a month. The chickens were found dead on Feb. 2-3 at a breeding farm in Yijing, a town in Shanxi province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. They tested positive for the virulent H5N1 strain of the disease, it said. It is China's 29th reported outbreak of the disease in birds since Oct. 19.
  • Two Vietnamese officials were sacked and stripped of their Communist Party membership for allegedly embezzling $5,000 from state funds earmarked to fight bird flu, an official said Wednesday. Phan Bach Tuyet, head of the Agriculture Department of An Phu District in southern An Giang province, and accountant Van Van Phet allegedly embezzled money earmarked for equipment to try to contain the spread of bird flu in 2004 and 2005.
  • Fears that bird flu may have spread to southern Iraq rose Tuesday when authorities announced they were investigating whether a teenage pigeon seller had died of the virus Sunday. A U.S. official said if the Amarah death is confirmed as bird flu, it could indicate that migratory birds unaffected by the virus were still capable of spreading it along their flight path.

  • Thiermann said all the 46,000 birds on the Nigerian farm have been killed and their bodies disposed of and Nigerian authorities have banned the movement of birds and people from the farm to others in the area. Officials also are investigating whether birds were transferred to other farms in the past 21 days, and they, too, are being quarantined, he said.

    "We feel that they are doing everything they can and they certainly need help," he said.

    Additional protective clothing was being moved Wednesday from Senegal to Nigeria, he said.

    Experts had suspected that migrating wild birds could spread the disease to Africa, said Thiermann, noting that Nigeria is on a "major flyway."

    A laboratory in Padova, Italy, identified the "highly pathogenic H5N1" in the Nigerian birds, OIE said in a statement. It added further tests were being carried out to determine how close the Nigerian strain was to H5N1 detected elsewhere in the world.

    The Italian Health Ministry said the bird flu strain is very similar to those found in Siberia and Mongolia.

    The OIE said it was working with U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization to "coordinate a common response to this event."

    A team of experts to assess and provide technical advice will leave for Nigeria toward the end of this week, said Thiermann, who is a special adviser to the OIE's director.

    Bird flu began ravaging poultry stocks across Asia in 2003, forcing the slaughter of 140 million birds and jumping to humans, killing dozens. It has since spread to Europe and the Middle East.

    Health officials had feared a deadly bird flu virus could enter impoverished, loosely governed African regions where many people raise chickens at home for personal consumption.

    On Monday, Nigerian officials said that initial tests on chickens that mysteriously died in Kano, a state neighboring the state where H5N1 was detected, showed no sign of bird flu.

    Nigerian authorities nevertheless urged farmers to monitor their flocks and report strange ailments to authorities. Kano set up a committee of veterinary surgeons to visit farms and watch out for evidence of a bird flu outbreak after some poultry farms reported large-scale bird deaths last week.

    Large-scale poultry farms aside, many Nigerian families live at close quarters with chickens and other fowl, which are an important food source. The birds are generally kept with other domestic animals at night but allowed to roam freely during the day.

    Controlling the spread of the virus could be particularly difficult in Africa, where central governments often exert little control in far-flung rural areas most likely to have people keeping fowl in their homes.

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