Countries across West and Central Africa are on alert as the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1 continues to spread across the region, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned in July 2016. The strain can infect and cause death in humans and kills poultry at a high rate.
The latest H5N1 outbreaks were recently confirmed on chicken farms in Cameroon putting the poultry production in the country and its neighbours at high risk. This is the first time the disease has been found in Central Africa since 2006.
This outbreak brings the number of countries that have battled bird flu in West and Central Africa to six, also including Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria.
Nigeria continues to be most affected with the total number of outbreaks exceeding 750 with nearly 3.5 million birds dead or culled. The newly recorded outbreaks in Cameroon raise significant concerns that the disease may be advancing southward, triggering national and global emergency responses to contain the disease, and health screenings of poultry workers.
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has caused the death of tens of millions of poultry and losses of tens of billions of dollars worldwide since the virus first spread internationally in 2013 — in Cameroon alone, losses have added up to an estimated USD 20 million, according to local media reports.
Response to the latest H5N1 outbreaks
The FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) are working closely together to offer member-countries assistance, such as risk assessments, contingency planning, technical advice and laboratory material. They also help with investigating potential avian influenza cases in animals and humans and locating the source of infection.
Response interventions include culling infected and exposed poultry, disinfecting premises and markets and safely disposing of dead birds.
A major concern is that the disease may become endemic in the entire region, particularly in Nigeria where avian influenza has become so entrenched in poultry production and marketing systems that it will be difficult to eliminate.
For that reason, producers and traders need to be made aware about the clinical signs of the disease symptoms, how and to whom to report it, and implement good hygiene practices to halt its spread.