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African nations take action as fear of bird flu grows

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—The West African coastal nation of Senegal on Friday became the latest African country to ban poultry imports as the continent begins to take precautions against a feared arrival of bird flu.

Countries along the Rift Valley in eastern Africa—Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which are thought to be at greatest risk because of the millions of migratory birds that will arrive there in December—already had announced poultry bans or strengthened existing regulations. The neighboring countries of Congo, Sudan and Uganda also have announced bans, as has Ghana, in West Africa.

In South Africa, where a milder strain of bird flu was detected on two farms last year, health officials said they had extended quarantines for imported poultry and had stepped up checks of the country's large ostrich population.

Health officials became concerned about Africa after bird flu was detected among migratory birds in Russia, Romania and Turkey. The virus currently poses little threat to humans, but officials are worried that infected birds flying south for the winter might not be detected quickly in Africa, where millions of people live in close contact with animals and public-health systems are ill-prepared to respond to emergencies.

Scientists worry that the virus, which has killed 67 people since 2003, could mutate into a strain that passes easily among people, spreading a potentially lethal disease across a wide swath of the population.

"The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease-control capacities in eastern African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus," Joseph Domenech, the chief veterinarian at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said this week.

Health officials in Asia and Eastern Europe have ordered millions of birds suspected of having the flu to be killed, a practice known as culling. Authorities credit the tactic with helping to limit the spread of the virus worldwide.

Domenech questioned whether such crucial early measures would be conducted in East Africa, "where veterinary services, due to various constraints, should have more difficulties to run efficient bird-flu campaigns based on slaughtering infected animals and vaccination."

The FAO plans to help East African countries monitor suspicious bird deaths and improve laboratories' ability to detect an outbreak. These countries "urgently need international assistance to build up basic surveillance and control systems," Domenech said.

Kenya's director of medical services, James Nyikal, said the country was prepared to take aggressive action, including quarantining or slaughtering birds that were suspected of being infected.

"The Ministry of Health has strengthened the disease-surveillance system countrywide," Nyikal said. "This has enhanced early detection of any suspected cases of avian flu."

Kenyan officials have placed veterinary officers on alert at the country's ports and published informational leaflets on bird flu to distribute nationwide.

Experts said such public education programs were necessary, especially for poor, rural Africans who depend on poultry sales for their livelihoods and might be reluctant to report suspicious deaths in their flocks.

"The authorities must redouble efforts to inculcate in Kenyans the necessity for reporting any extraordinary deaths among domestic birds," an editorial in Kenya's The Nation newspaper said this week.

African officials said they were working closely with the international community, and at a meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya, representatives from the FAO, World Bank and African health agencies prepared a continentwide plan on bird flu that might be made public as early as next week.

"In terms of reaction, we are not prepared," said Karim Tounkara, an epidemiologist with the Pan-African Program for the Control of Epizootics. "But with the support of our donors and our international partners, we will build our capacity for early diagnosis. We are not dealing with this alone."


(Bengali reported from Johannesburg and special correspondent Kilongi from Nairobi, Kenya.)

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