Bird Flu Alarm

2006-02-09-Africa health systems ill prepared for bird flu

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-02-09-Africa health systems ill prepared for bird flu


DAKAR (Reuters) - African countries lack the health and disease control systems to contain a deadly strain of bird flu which was confirmed for the first time on the continent this week, officials and experts said on Thursday.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza was found in poultry in northern Nigeria on Wednesday and officials say it poses a major challenge to weak healthcare services already battling HIV/ AIDS and malaria.

H5N1 has killed 88 people in Asia and the Middle East since 2003. They contracted the disease from birds, but scientists say the most serious threat will come if the virus mutates to jump between humans, triggering a human flu pandemic.

"That's what we fear most because we don't have the capacity to tackle that," said Dorothee Yevide, deputy cabinet director in the health ministry of Benin, Nigeria's western neighbor.

"At the moment, the health ministry has no specific strategy if that were to happen. On our own we can do nothing because it would take lots of resources," Yevide said.

Added to poor animal disease control structures and porous borders that are almost impossible to police, Africa has few laboratories capable of running the tests necessary for any continent-wide bird flu control programme.

"Confirmation in Nigeria also raises doubts about the detection and reporting capabilities of northern and western African countries such as Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Libya and Egypt," New York-based risk consultancy Eurasia Group said.

"Additionally, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in African countries could have an impact on how the virus spreads and possibly mutates into a more human capable form," it added in a report.

OVERWHELMED

Sparse hospitals and primary medical services, lack of health education, poor communications and the prevalence of a host of other deadly diseases all mitigate against rapid detection of any human cases of bird flu in Africa.

"Early detection of human cases is unlikely. Surveillance systems are weak and unlikely to pick up cases of a disease with symptoms similar to those of common illnesses," said a World Health Organization report on bird flu in Africa late last year.

Ghanaian authorities have been working for five months to prepare for both bird and human infections, but are hampered by lack of technical capacity, Dr George Amofa, deputy director of Ghana's health service, told Reuters.

"We have trained trainees to work in our regional and district hospitals on how to detect human influenza and manage it if detected and to take specimens," he said.

But Ghana lacks the capacity to test for human influenza, and suspect specimens would need to go to Egypt or Britain for confirmation.

"We're doing the best we can within the limits of our resources," said Amofa.

(Additional reporting by Pawana Abalo in Cotonou, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Dakar and Kwaku Sakyi-Addo in Accra)

Understanding Avian Influenza