Bird Flu Alarm

2006-02-09-At Last, the Bird Flu

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-02-09-At Last, the Bird Flu

Not a few people prayed for the bird flu epidemic to ignore Nigeria. But news from northern parts of the country confirm that that is an unanswered prayer. The dreaded bird flu is here after all. And we may have all be chewing it in our meals all this long.

Dr. Lami Lombin, executive director of the Nigerian Veterinary Research Institute (NURI), Jos said that the flu had been here for a while. Samples sent to a laboratory in Italy, confirm that the Type A flu virus was implicated in tests. The samples are from the Sambawa Farms in Jaji, Kaduna State, owned by current Sports Minister, Samaila Sambawa.

All around Jaji, and parts of Kaduna and Kano states, there is anxiety. People are worried about what may happen next. The reason why people worry for their lives is principally that the virus also affects humans and has steadily claimed some lives in China, Turkey and other parts of Asia. Logically, such a life-threatening public health problem is bound to stir deep fear in the citizens who live around those communities.

For the whole country, there is reason for deep worry. The reason is not a fear that our world should be totally inured from pestilence and disease. People understand perfectly that pestilence and disease in whatever form are facts of human existence. What troubles people is the awareness that our public health infrastructure is often incapable of responding to such outbreaks. Beef for that worry was provided by Lombin., when she said the outbreak was reported late. "We were only called in when things were quite serious and out of hand," she said. "The record of the operation of the farm was poor and many unprofessional practices were on there."

Let us take the story from the beginning. News of the outbreak of the bird flu, has been on for a while. But in our typical fashion, Nigerians prefered to treat it as some fable. But in fairness to the government, the federal executive council (FEC) did discuss the issue and set up a task force on the outbreak of the bird flu. It was a good news items for government, in terms of the perception of having set up an early-warning and monitoring system. But it seems that it ended there.

It did not appear (except we were not told) that the committee began it task in the first instance. At least, it was missing in the story of the discovery of the flu at Sambawa Farms. The late discovery of the presence of the flu, is a first sign that even if monitoring systems were put in place, they were either not activated or failed altogether.

Now, the danger is also in the consequence of that failure. Because we failed to monitor, we can conclude that there are no structures to control the epidemic. Lombin gave a hint of that, in reference to the "bad' practices at the farm. Because the farm sourced the birds from everywhere and even open markets as alleged, nobody is sure of the source of the flu. Again, nobody is sure where birds from the Sambawa Farms had been sold. The lack of certainly on where to begin to trace the problem, has potential to cause us all sleepless nights. So, how long and how far away are we from incidence of humans affected by the flu? Do we have the capacity to monitor? Or Control? Or treat victims?

Television conveys to us, examples of how the matter can be handled. In China, Turkey, Thailand and elsewhere, we see public health officials in protective gear, move from house to house, neighbourhoods and farms to fumigate and slaughter birds, that may be vectors of the diseases. Even with the advantage of time, have we been able to import such gears, vaccines and medicines? Which hospital has the capacity to determine which fever is a result of contact with the virus or our old malaria?

If he decides to lead from behind, it needs to said that it does not appear that the public health department of the health ministry, will not disappoint, as in the past.

What the government needs to do is to draft the military to take control of the situation. To fight this epidemic involves, a massive effort which the military has capacity to handle. Let the government mobilise all it can as quickly as possible to deal with the matter. Deaths from the virus have been relatively low. So we expect that Nigeria's case may not be different. But we need not take anything for granted. What is required is direct intervention, more men and materials to deal the task of isolating and slaughtering birds in areas that are vulnerable. The worst is that Nigeria's fate is made difficult because not all poultry are in farms. But we can do a great deal to minimise the danger.

Understanding Avian Influenza