Bird Flu: All Eyes On Nigeria?

Recently (January 2015), Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, Akinwumi Adesina, confirmed the outbreak of bird flu in eleven states of the federation. The states affected are Kano, Lagos, Ogun, Rivers, Delta, Edo, Plateau, Gombe, Imo, Oyo and Jigawa states.

eyesNot many Nigerians even heard of the outbreak which could really be very disastrous if not properly managed. The Federal Government not only immediately identified and depopulated the 39 farms affected by the flu in the eleven states; it also approved N145 million for the owners of the farms as compensation for the loss they suffered as a result of the depopulation exercise. As we know, depopulation is one of the most effective measures usually taken to control the spread of the avian flu. Each of the affected farms got N1.4 million which was disbursed within 72 hours of the killing of the infected and exposed birds. We must also commend the owners of those farms for cooperating with the government to arrest the looming epidemic.

When it was reported that Nigeria had recorded “the first” human casualty from bird flu in 2007, a World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson, Gregory Hartl, said cases of humans contracting the H5N1 virus (which causes the bird flu) in Nigeria should come to no one as a surprise, considering the experience in a country like Indonesia, which, like Nigeria, has huge concentrations of poultry where human beings live.

“It does not change anything from a public health point of view. It had to happen sooner or later,” Hartl said.

The New Zealand Herald of February 1, 2007, quotes unnamed “experts” as identifying Nigeria as one of the countries that constitute the “weakest links in the global attempt to stem infections of birds.”

That a 2007 report singled out Nigeria and Indonesia as great threats to the world at that time because of the reckless poultry management that subsisted in those two countries which could easily lay the world bare to the dreaded avian influenza pandemic that wreaked untold havoc to humanity in 1918 should promptly urge us to ask ourselves: what has changed about us since then to reduce the threat we posed to the world in 2007?

Okay, we might say that we now have a more edifying government response unlike what obtained in 2007; but are there realistic efforts at the grassroots to extend enlightenment and education to the people by the states and local councils?

At a press briefing in Abuja in January, the Agriculture Minister, Mr. Adesina, while appealing to all those exposed to the flu to report immediately to the appropriate health authorities, assured the country that just like the Federal Government won the battle against the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), they were on top of the current situation. “We are not in a state of an epidemic and will collaborate with states and our development partners to ensure that there is no room for panic,’’ he said.

Bird flu is essentially an animal disease, but when it leaves its natural host and infects humans, it could mutate into a form that could trigger the dreaded human-to-human infections which could spell disaster for humanity. When contracted by humans, the H5N1 virus is said to easily “forget” what it was originally. “A different strain”, says a report, “might mutate to cause a pandemic and it would take many months to produce a vaccine after a pandemic had started.”

And before that vaccine is ready, the virus might mutate further to assume forms that would resist the vaccine produced. That is why every attempt is always made around the world to frustrate the possibility of human-to-human infections.

Asked a number of years ago why the United Kingdom was not stockpiling vaccines like the United States, Italy and France, a spokeswoman for the UK Department of Health was quoted by the BBC as saying: “The department does not believe stockpiling vaccines is the best course to follow, as we cannot be sure what mutation of the virus would be involved in the pandemic.”

The problem with Nigeria is that the informal sectors of its economy which far outnumber the formal are too difficult to monitor. So, how can anyone in such a near-chaos ensure that human beings have less contact with chickens?  In the villages, for instance, many families share the same houses with their fowls. These fowls are let out each day to go and find food for themselves, and by evening, they are able to return to their owners because of their successful domestication. In the course of their daily wanderings, they could also have contacts with wild birds which are known to be the most vulnerable hosts of this dreaded virus.

Now, who would be able to medically examine these birds assuming they take ill or die in the houses of their owners in one remote village in the country? What is the guarantee that ailing (or even dead) chickens are still not being slaughtered for dinner in our various communities? Even if they are disposed of, are any precautions being taken in the course of that to prevent infection?

Now, we are talking about the villages, what of the so-called cities? By the way, who has accurate records of the number of people that run small poultry farms beside their houses, even in their apartments, especially, in densely populated areas of our cities? The chickens that die regularly which the poultry owners either throw away or cook for lunch, who would in those small corners where they operate determine what killed them?

There is even a worse situation. In our markets, chickens displayed for sale enjoy almost infinite proximity and “interactions” with humans among buyers and sellers.  Are there no better ways of organizing the sales of chickens in all our markets by the relevant authorities to reduce this risk to humans?

When birds are infected in a particular farm, they can be quarantined and slaughtered. When humans are infected, it is a different matter entirely. Such a person could either survive or die. Some experts say he has fifty percent chances of either surviving or dying. Early detection could help, but in Nigeria where majority of the people keep patronizing the nearby “chemist” until they are almost gasping for breath before they think of going to the hospital, one can only imagine what to expect. And nobody can dictate to the virus how long it should stay in a human being before its mutations commence.

The 1917-1918 avian influenza pandemic is reported to have killed about 40 million people worldwide. Now, by 1918, when the world witnessed the pandemic, human mobility was highly limited due to non-availability of effective transportation. But today, airplanes have reduced the distance between countries; and tourism, business expansions, increased understanding and co-operations among peoples of diverse climes have turned the world into a global village. If any part of the world is hit by the pandemic today, virtually no nation would be spared.  Millions of lives could be lost. That is why all eyes are always on countries like Nigeria each time there is an outbreak.

But like it surprised the rest of humanity when the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) arrived on its soil recently, Nigeria should be ready to give the world another pleasant surprise.

IMAGE: Patrik Theander

Written by
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
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