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Avian flu found in Africa, has killed 40,000 birds on Nigerian farm

NAIROBI, Kenya—A deadly strain of bird flu has been discovered on a poultry farm in northern Nigeria, health officials said Wednesday, marking the virus's first known appearance in Africa.

A "highly pathogenic" form of the H5N1 virus has killed 40,000 birds in the rural Nigerian state of Kaduna, according to the World Organization for Animal Health, a United Nations agency. No humans have been infected, the agency said.

The announcement confirmed predictions that the virus, which has turned up in the Middle East and Eastern Europe in recent months, would land in Africa eventually, the region that experts fear might be the most vulnerable to a bird flu pandemic.

Millions of Africans live in close proximity to animals, and the continent's health systems lack the capacity to control an outbreak. Nigeria is particularly at risk because of its large commercial poultry industry. Millions of Nigerians raise birds in their backyards, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Bird flu rarely infects humans, but close contact with sick birds increases the chances of people catching it. Health experts are concerned that the virus will mutate into a strain that passes easily between people, sparking a global pandemic.

The H5N1 virus has killed at least 88 of the 165 people known to have been infected with it. Nearly all those cases have been in East Asia, though deaths have been recorded recently in Turkey and northern Iraq.

The U.N. agency said Nigerian authorities had killed and disposed of the infected birds and had quarantined the area. The agency said it would send experts to the region to provide assistance.

"If the situation in Nigeria gets out of control, it will have a devastating impact on the poultry population in the region, it will seriously damage the livelihoods of millions of people and it will increase the exposure of humans to the virus," Samuel Jutzi, the organization's director of animal production and health, said in a statement.

Late Wednesday, Nigeria's tiny neighbor Benin announced a ban on all imports of poultry and poultry products from Nigeria.

The virus was discovered by a laboratory in Italy in samples taken Jan. 16 from birds on the Nigerian farm, which housed chickens, ostriches and geese, the U.N. agency said. It said scientists still were analyzing how closely the Nigerian strain matched those from other known outbreaks.

Nigerian authorities also were investigating the deaths of about 60,000 birds in the neighboring state of Kano. Preliminary tests have ruled out bird flu, but authorities said they were conducting more.

World health officials began sounding warnings about Africa's risk of bird flu in October, saying that migrating birds harboring the virus were likely to arrive in Africa during the winter. A U.N.-sponsored conference last month in Beijing raised $2 billion in pledges to help poor countries in Africa and Southeast Asia beef up their veterinary health and monitoring systems.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060208 AVIANFLU spread, 20060208 AVIANFLU Africa

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051018 Birds flyways

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