Last Wednesday’s confirmation by Agriculture Minister, AkinwunmiAdesina, of the spread of the bird flu to five more Nigerian states was, to say the least, very worrying. But, more disturbing was his seeming relaxed comment that the disease was yet to assume an epidemic status.According to him, he had directed “a nationwide comprehensive surveillance, quarantine, depopulation and decontamination” of affected poultry farms and areas; and that his ministry was working closely with state governments, the Poultry Association of Nigeria, the Nigerian Veterinary Medical Association and the Animal Science Association of Nigeria, to contain the spread.
Experts broadly categorise bird flu or Avian Influenza virus as having either low pathogeny (LPAI) or highpathogeny (HPAI). Strains (H5N1) that cause the greatest number of deaths are called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). The H5N1 strain, the one that ravages Nigeria, originated with birds and moved to mammals, and began to affect humans after years of mutation.The most recent outbreak was reported in Lagos and Rivers states during the last Christmas and New Year celebrations and was not contained before last Wednesday’s disclosure by the agric minister. By then, it had spread to five more states – Delta, Edo, Plateau, Ogun and Kano.
The latest outbreak is coming seven years after the last outbreak of the flu in Nigeria in July 2008, and nine years after the outbreak of the H5N1 avian influenza was first reported on February 8, 2006 in the country.Even though officials have said there is no indication that the present outbreak is the H5N1 strain which killed more than 400 people worldwide, including Nigeria, since it first appeared in 2003, it is pertinent to up our efforts at containing it, especially as it has been confirmed to be the H5N1 strain.
In spite of the assurances given by Dr. Adesina, citizens must not be lured into complacency. If the disease could spread to five more states in a span of less than a month after its reappearance in the country, it means we have a lot more to do to control it! This is because, in its last incursion between 2006 and 2008, no fewer than 25 states plus the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and 97 Local Government Areas (LGAs) were affected, with over 1.3 million birds depopulated. Still, in January 2007, the first human case of avian influenza fatality in the country was recorded!
We must bring to bear on the present public health challenge the lesson of our successful battle against Ebola. It was proactive measures combined by a robust public enlightenment campaign that contained Ebola. We need to adopt the same collaborative approach in fighting the bird flu through preventive /control measures in affected areas including, but not limited to quarantining; culling; disinfection; restriction on movement of birds within the country; halting the importation of poultry products and the commencement of surveillance from all the surveillance points nation-wide and safe disposal of carcasses. There is already existing legislation that requires that all affected poultry within a certain radius of any discovered virus should be systematically culled, whereas those within a wider radius should be vaccinated. We must invoke that law now!