by Greg Odogwu
There are two factors that should console every Nigerian concerning the recent outbreak of Avian Influenza, commonly known as bird flu. Known informally as avian flu or bird flu, avian influenza refers to influenza caused by viruses adapted to birds. The version with the greatest concern is Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, aka HPAI, and this is the strain that has entered Nigeria.
Nevertheless, we should be somewhat glad that of all the five subtypes of the HPAI- i.e. H5NI, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9 and H9N2 – that are considered dangerous because they are the only types that are pathogenic in humans, it is the H5NI strain which has hit our birds. At least, the H5N1 has defined and easily recognisable symptoms which could be identified in order to aid early decontamination of affected areas. It could have been worse.
The day I read about the discovery of the newest subtype of the virus, H7N9, reported in China in 2013, I prayed that it never entered Nigeria. That particular strain was described by the World Health Organisation as “an unusually dangerous virus for humans”. It infected more than 100 people just within three months after it was reported, and a fifth of those patients died, with much more lying critically ill. And to worsen the odds, birds infected with the H7N9 strain never show any symptom whatsoever. The birds never get sick, never die, but they transmit the virus to humans, who then fall sick and die. Just imagine the potential apocalyptic catastrophe.
One could then imagine my anxiety when two weeks ago, I read about the reported cases of avian flu in Nigeria. I fervently prayed that it should not be that deadly strain H7N9, especially considering that we just finished grappling, and containing, the Ebola Virus Disease pandemic. But thank God, as tests were run on the infected birds, the experts declared that ours was the H5N1 strain!
That brings us to the second factor. Nigerians should be cheered up by the fact that we had defeated H5N1 before. In early 2006 (exactly nine years ago), avian influenza outbreak was detected in our country. Nigeria was the first country in Africa to be affected by the H5N1 virus. The first outbreak was reported in Kaduna State and confirmed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on February 8, 2006. The disease spread rapidly to 97 local government areas in 25 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. According to official reports then, 440,000 birds were culled in the first two months of the outbreak. The attacks peaked again by February, and October, 2007, and in July 2008, but were quickly brought under control.
At the end of the day, the outbreaks affected 3,037 farms, causing 1.3 million of the country’s estimated 160 million birds to be destroyed as a method of containment. The world, concerned that the virus which was before viewed as Asia-concentrated, had found its way to poverty-ridden Africa, rushed to help Nigeria fight the scourge. With rapid monitoring, and various containment efforts, boosted by the World Bank credit of $50m-equivalent provided under the Global Programme for Avian Influenza and Human Pandemic Preparedness and Response, Nigeria was able to conquer the virus.
But today, the menace is back, presently ravaging seven states of Nigeria. As of last weekend, a total of 140, 390 birds had been infected by bird flu, with 22,573 or 16 per cent mortality recorded. Remarkably, with 103,445 reported cases and 15,963 deaths, Kano State, which also happens to be where the index case was found, is the most affected of all the affected states.
However, the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, maintains that the development has not got to a crisis level and there is no cause for alarm. He said in Abuja a few days ago, “We are not in a state of any epidemic. Seven states so far have reported cases of the bird flu. They include Kano, Lagos, Ogun, Delta, Rivers, Edo and Plateau states. To date, 21 commercial farms, nine live bird markets and private zoos have been affected in the seven states.”
My thoughts are, we should not give bird flu any chance to escalate or divert our attention from it for a second. No viral epidemic is minor. We must switch to crisis mode in order to tackle the emergency head-on. It will be much cheaper to start now to fight rather than wait until it has entered more states or decimated millions of our birds in this “austerity measures” period.
The first two critical steps that must be taken are: Spend some government time and money on public enlightenment and stakeholders’ sensitisation.
Poultry farmers must imbibe the globally required biosecurity measures for their farms. I once read a report from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, with some interesting research findings. It stated that biosecurity failures were revealed in a survey of poultry farming in Kogi State, thereby raising the risk of the introduction and spread of highly HPAI in the area; and concluded that better knowledge and understanding by stakeholders would help reduce the risks of Bird Flu.
Therefore, listed below are biosecurity tips livestock farmers should know: Limit nonessential traffic on the farm; require livestock and feed haulers to clean and disinfect their vehicles before hauling livestock or feed to and fro your operation; know who is on your farm, because if bird flu occurs, the information will aid follow-up investigations; have one combined entrance and exit; limit access of nonessential people, and do not let unauthorised visitors touch animals; provide disinfectant and appropriate disposable footwear; develop and enforce a policy for family members and employees who visit other livestock facilities to first of all change their clothes when going, or returning, from other farms, and wash their hands and face before handling the animals; use separate equipment for healthy and sick animals; keep your livestock confined to the farm, and do not feed or encourage wildlife to come onto your farm; and call your veterinarian immediately you observe unusual disease symptoms in livestock.
I must mention that experts noted that domestic or “backyard rearing” of birds is a major cause of the spread of the avian flu. Asia has a preponderance of this kind of set-up, and it used to be the only continent with the virus until it began to spread out to Europe and Africa in the 2000’s.
Therefore, Nigerians with backyard poultries should be on a red alert too. Meanwhile, for the general public, the following steps must be taken as a way of preventing the spread of the avian flu: Know that you should not come in contact with infected domesticated birds such as chicken, turkey or duck or their carcasses; know that properly handled and cooked poultry and eggs cannot spread the virus; before and after handling raw poultry and eggs, wash your hands with warm water and soap for a minimum of 20 seconds; cook your eggs till whites and yolks are firm; clean cutting boards, tableware and all surfaces with soap and hot water to prevent contamination from raw poultry; use a food thermometer to know when you cook poultry to a temperature of at least 165 degrees; when warm water and soap are unavailable, use a waterless alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
Ogun State Ministry of Agriculture has made these numbers available for bird flu enquiries: 08033892861, 08025195464, 08027370579, 07034500063.
Greg Odogwu is an environment columnist in Punch newspaper, is CEO, Jupiter Earth Green Limited, http://www.alternativepowermedia.com .
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.