Playing Chicken With Bird Flu

New York Times, February 21, 2006
Playing Chicken With Bird Flu

Bird flu has spread to several new countries in recent days, but the most worrisome by far is Nigeria. Health experts have dreaded the arrival of avian flu in Africa, a continent where the backyard chicken is everywhere and veterinary health systems are nowhere.

Nigeria has reported avian flu in several states in the country's north. But the outbreak began on Jan. 10 or earlier, and it took Nigeria 20 days to send samples to a lab that could test them. The government has announced quarantines on the affected farms, but visiting reporters say that no quarantines exist and that some of the farms have not even been visited by animal health officials. Nigeria is paying far too little for each chicken it kills; that approach ensures that farmers will hide their flocks.

Avian flu can be controlled. In the past three years, bird flu broke out in Malaysia, Korea and Japan, and all three countries eradicated it, thanks to early warning and quick action that eliminated the flu by killing only a few thousand chickens. Those countries had systems in place to test animals regularly and respond rapidly to reports of signs of danger. But there is no effective veterinary surveillance in most poor countries. Since each bird-to-human transmission gives the virus another opportunity to mutate into a form that could cause a pandemic, the health of the whole world could depend on constructing it.

Humans are often plagued by zoonotic diseases, which arise first in animals. In last few years we have had SARS and West Nile and mad cow diseases, to name a few. Avian flu is now attracting the attention and money that could help nations build up their veterinary services and control these threats.

The World Organization for Animal Health faces overwhelming challenges
in improving veterinary services for these regions and controlling bird
flu outbreaks. The backyard chicken, kept by hundreds of millions of
people in poor countries, has more contact with wild birds and with
people than its industrial cousin. The families who keep chickens have
not been educated about the dangers, and barefoot children continue to
play with sick poultry. Agricultural officials vaccinating poultry can
spread disease as they travel from farm to farm, and chicken-killing
teams may be poorly trained and easily corrupted.

A conference in Beijing in mid-January raised $1.9 billion in pledges
to fight avian flu. Some of the money will go toward veterinary
services, but it will be slow in coming and there are emergencies now.
Rich countries should be sending platoons of veterinary experts to help
Nigeria and its neighbors.