What About Bird Flu?

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Politics is in the air. It is so thick and overwhelmingly palpable. Nothing else grabs the front pages and prominent spots in the media any more than the big (and most of the time, empty, uninspiring) speeches, stratagems, chicaneries, and wild pursuits of men and women fighting to secure elective positions in Nigeria. They want to taketheir turns to “eat” like many others are presently doing. Who knows, this might be their last opportunity to join the “Eating Class”, so, they are putting everything into it, both fair and foul.

Moreover, they know too well, that those presently occupying the positions they want to capture are not willing to lose their meal tickets without very serious, dirty fight. So, great preparations are on, everywhere, to deploy whatever it takes to not only wage this war but win it. Those who lack the liver and villainy it usually takes to fight the battle are filing behind those better equipped to do so, singing their praises, fawning around them, and running several, and often, very demeaning errands for them, with the hope that if they eventually capture the offices they are after, they can appoint them into juicy positions where they too can get their own shares of the national wealth.

Now, I do not deny that there may be a couple of honest politicians out there, motivated to seek political power by purely altruistic considerations; the problem is that they are too few to be detected among the intimidating crowd of potential looters.It is that bad.

At the Presidency, governance (or lack of it) has since been hurriedly folded up like a disused mat, and dumped in one small, dark, dirty corner. All energy, resources, creativity, legal magic and fearsome zeal are being generously deployed to prosecute the grand conspiracy against law and order, decency and civility, to ensure that those whose faces are fiercely detested by the mortal gods of the empire are prevented from even offering themselves for “elections”, while the anointed toadiesand vassals are given a smooth ride to power.

As these “big stories” compete for prominent spaces in the media, “less important matters” are consigned to obscure corners. It is from one of those inconsequential corners that I picked up the issue I am examining today, hoping that somebody somewhere, would pause to realize that in this era of mad politics and vulgar struggle for power, a clear and present danger presently stares this hapless nation in the face.

When it was reported that Nigeria has recorded “the first” human casualty from bird flu, a World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson, Gregory Hartl, said cases of humans contracting the H5N1 virus 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.”

Now, before our brother, Frank Nweke jnr., jumps into the square to wage war with the WHO spokesperson, like he did recently with CNN, for “trying to rubbish Nigeria’s image”, he and those he speaks for should pause awhile and consider whether the world would not soon be paying a huge price for being stupid enough to coexist with an unorganized enclave like Nigeria at this time in history? Nigeria and Indonesia are considered the greatest threat to human existence at this time because of the reckless poultry management that subsist in those two countries, which easily lays the world bare to the dreaded avian influenza pandemic that wreaked untold havoc to humanity in 1918. But whereas there are some noticeable efforts to contain the threat in Jakarta, Nigeria’s response has been half-hearted, to put it mildly.

We all know that 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. 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 and assume forms that would resist the vaccine produced. That is why every attempt is being made around the world to frustrate the possibility of human-to-human infections. Asked 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. Nobody is even thinking about organizing the country, and developing systems for effective monitoring of all forms of business and other activities. So, how can anyone in this chaos ensure that human beings have less contact with chickens? In the villages, for instance, most 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, 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? What is the guarantee that ailing (or even dead) chickens are still not being slaughtered for dinner in our various communities, especially, as the effect of the harsh economic conditions in the country bites harder on the people? 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? In this era of “reforms”, when the emphasis is on the empowerment of private hands, who has accurate records of the number of people in several crannies that responded to the challenge and raised small poultry farms beside their houses, especially, in densely, populated areas like, Ajegunle, Badia (Amukoko), Obalende, Ebute Metta, Agege, to cite a few examples in Lagos? The chickens that die regularly, which the poultry owners either throw away or cook for lunch, who is trying to determine what kills them?

There is even a worse situation. In our markets, chickens displayed for sale enjoy almost infinite proximity and “interactions” with humans. Pay a visit to Onipanu market in Lagos, for instance, and see for yourself, how vulnerable Nigeria is to this virus, and how unconcerned the authorities are about the dreaded pandemic that is chilling the spine of the rest of the world. Now, it is not only those at those marketplaces that are at great risk; even someone driving past is clearly threading a minefield. Why is Nigeria cursed with leaders who are so selfish, callous and inept, to the point of self-destruction? Are they aware that HN51 virus does not know the “big man” or “His Excellency”?

Okay, we have announced the death of the “first” victim of bird flu because she died in a formal hospital, but that industrious neighbourhood poultry owner who died in his sleep after a “brief fever” somewhere in Isale Eko or Ilaje, and was mourned and quietly buried by his family and friends in a nearby cemetery, who was able to carry out an autopsy to determine the cause of death? Is it the medicine vendor that sold to him the paracetamol he took on the eve of his death that would do that or who? What a country!

When bir

ds 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 imagine what to expect. And nobody can dictate to the virus how long it should stay in a human being before its mutations commence. Moreover, in the event of the dreaded human-to-human infections, vaccines may be unhelpful because, the virus may take on a form that is resistant to all existing vaccines.

In an article I read last Sunday captioned, “Avian Flu Pandemic Threatens The World”(Nov. 20, 2005), the author, Stephen Mikesell, said: “That the H5N1 influenza is reported to have already spread to both pigs and felines indicates that it is prone to the reallocation needed to spread to the human population. And because it has never infected humans before, the human immune system is unable to recognize and attack it, making it extremely lethal to the people who contract it… The high rate of mortality experienced by people contracting the virus from birds has health experts extremely worried. Its initial mortality rate was 50 percent, but in recent months it seems to have been becoming more lethal with a rate of 70 percent. In comparison, the 1917-1918 influenza pandemic, a bird flu which killed 40 million people worldwide, had a mortality rate of just 5 percent.”

By 1918, when the world witnessed the pandemic, human mobility was highly limited due to non-availability of effective transportation. International trade and interactions between nations were minimal. But today, airplanes have reduced the distance between countries, and tourism, business expansions, increased understanding and co-operations have turned the world to 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 on Nigeria.

And when will this disastrous bomb explode? Well, it could be any time. Or it may never. Last Monday, I read an article on BirdfluBook.com captioned: “Two Minutes To Midnight”. In it, a Harvard epidemiologist was quoted as saying: “It would be irresponsible to say we are absolutely going to get there this year or next year because we just don’t understand virus evolution enough. It is, I think, correct to say that we are in a period where the risk is growing and where it’s higher than we’ve ever known it to be.” Although, says the writer, “what most scientists do agree on is that each day brings us one day closer to the pandemic, though they admit it is unknown which virus will ultimately trigger the pandemic or how severe the next one will be.”

But can this pandemic be averted? Of course, yes. That is if countries like Nigeria could rouse themselves from their current fatal slumber, and tell themselves that this is not one of those matters, where the smoothest talker carries the day. People were almost concluding that the scare was over until the report of what the Nigerian authorities think is the “first death” from the virus in the country came out. Let’s not even dream of managing the pandemic because, if better governed countries, with functional health institutions still feel they are not prepared enough, Nigeria, with its failed systems, would certainly not be able to lift a finger should the pandemic break out. Like this country has always done in the face of virtually every challenge, it would rather empower its propaganda machines to go on disputing the casualty figures until the person heading the propaganda team is himself or herself claimed by the pandemic. That is where we are, dear reader.

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