Border on high-alert for bird flu

Niger’s Ministry of Livestock is intensifying its bird surveillance along the 1,500-kilometre border with northern Nigeria after a recent resurgence of bird deaths.

The Ministry of Livestock in Niger has ordered the killing of more than 20,000 birds suspected of carrying the virus since 2006. It has also paid about US$46,000 in compensation to farmers with sick birds to encourage them to hand over infected animals.

Officials in the northern Nigeria states Kebbi, Kano and Katsina reported several thousand poultry deaths on 29 July. Birds have been sent to laboratories in Italy to determine if the H5N1 avian flu virus is responsible.

Two years ago, a bird flu outbreak in Nigeria spread north to Niger. Niger’s Director of Animal Services, Dr. Maiga Zourkaleni, is preparing a team that will visit high-risk border areas Zinder, Maradi, Dosso and Tahoua. “We are working as hard as we can to prevent another cross-border infection,” he said.

Zourkaleni says his team will reinforce a ban on all poultry products coming from Nigeria. The avian flu director says hundreds of inspectors already work in the high-risk zone along the Nigerian border.

“Our team will continue to raise awareness about the virus’ reappearance in nearby Nigeria. We will make sure inspectors are actively blocking any illegal imports, and that they quickly act on any suspected cases.”

Most West African countries, including Niger, have already banned poultry imports from Nigeria, a policy that the UN Food and Agricultural Organization says is counterproductive.

“To put a ban on anything when you do not have the means to control ports of entry pushes people into clandestine trade,” said Juan Lubroth, the director of infectious diseases at the FAO.

“Clandestine commerce makes things worse because you cannot control and monitor the problem. Bans on poultry are not functional. This is a part of the world where there has been cross border trade for centuries… Managing risks makes more biological sense.”

While more than 140 million birds have died worldwide as a result of H5N1 infections, the virus has not caused a human epidemic, as experts have feared since its resurgence five years ago. According to the World Health Organization, about 200 people have died from contracting the H5N1 virus.

Alex Thiermann with the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health says it is critical to remain vigilant.

“People become complacent when you predict an emergency and it doesn’t come. However, the risk of a pandemic hasn’t disappeared. The virus has been good to humans thus far; even though it is highly mutative, it does not yet easily infect humans. But we don’t know what will happen. My advice is deal with this problem in poultry, then, we won’t have to deal with it in humans.”

pt/nr