From Asia to Europe to Africa, Trying to Stop the Spread of Bird Flu
Download MP3 (Right-click or option-click the link.)
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Today we begin a series of reports about the disease bird flu. The series will examine how quickly the disease has spread. It will also tell what is being done to stop the spread and how people can protect themselves and their families from bird flu.
The disease bird flu has killed people in at least ten countries since two thousand three. The United Nations World Health Organization confirmed one hundred sixty-five human deaths by the end of January.
Earlier this month, health officials in Britain reported that more than two thousand turkeys had died of bird flu. The officials immediately ordered people to keep at least three kilometers away from the turkey farm. Workers destroyed more than one hundred thousand healthy birds as a safety measure. There is no evidence that any people became sick with the disease.
The new head of the World Health Organization says it will be years until farm birds are safe from bird flu. W.H.O. Director-General Margaret Chan says that, until then, the world must work very hard to keep the disease from infecting many people.
Wild and farm birds often get a flu virus. Yet they usually are able to carry the virus without getting sick. In nineteen ninety-seven, six people in Hong Kong died of a different kind of bird flu virus. It is called the h-five-n-one virus. The Hong Kong government quickly ordered the killing of all farm birds there. That stopped the spread of h-five-n-one to people in Hong Kong.
Yet the virus had already spread to other parts of Asia. It was found in sixteen countries between two thousand three and two thousand six.
The h-five-n-one virus first appeared in Africa last year. This raised many concerns about the spread of the disease. Scientists do not know exactly how bird flu came to Africa. At first, they thought wild birds were to blame. Now, officials with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization believe the main cause is trade in farm birds.
The bird flu virus is found in the waste and liquids of infected birds. The virus spreads when healthy birds or people touch sick birds or any infected part of sick birds. Right now, the virus is not spreading from person to person. But the virus could change and start spreading among people. Health officials believe that is even more possible now that bird flu has spread to Africa. That is why international organizations are working so hard to stop its spread.
Nigeria is the first African country where bird flu was reported. Scientists have learned that the virus came into the country on chickens imported from China. Now bird flu has been found in farm birds in seven other African countries. They are Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Niger and Sudan. By the end of January, twelve people had died of the disease in Africa.
Health officials believe bird flu could be an even bigger problem in Africa than it has been in Asia. In Africa, many people are already suffering from serious diseases like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. There is not enough money to fight these diseases. There is even less money to fight a disease like bird flu, which has yet to kill many people. People are more likely to get a disease like bird flu if they are sick or weak from hunger. Both of these conditions are problems in many African countries.
Stopping the spread of bird flu is most successful when action is taken quickly. But the signs of bird flu are like many other diseases. So there could be many cases of bird flu, in birds or in people, before health care workers learn about it and are able to take action.
Africa does not have enough laboratories that can confirm an H-five-N-one bird flu infection. There are also not enough hospitals to take care of patients who have bird flu. And, there are not enough animal health care systems to control the disease among farm birds.
Bird flu causes both health and financial problems. In Asia and Africa, most of the cases have been found on small farms or among families who keep chickens. These birds often come into people's homes and share spaces where children play. The chickens often mix freely with wild birds.
The best way to stop the spread of bird flu is to kill all the chickens in an area where bird flu has been discovered. More than four hundred fifty thousand chickens have been killed in Nigeria since bird flu was first found one year ago.
In many countries, small farms provide food and even money for the education of children. The city of Jos, Nigeria, supports two thousand farmers who sell eggs all over the country. A man named Pius Ilonah lost seven thousand chickens when bird flu infection was discovered in a farm near his. "We do not have any savings or earn money now," says Mr. Ilonah.
Two of his children are in high school. Two others are university students. But Mr. Ilonah says there is no more money to keep them in school. Nigeria is attempting to organize a program to replace chickens as soon as the disease has stopped spreading.
The story is similar in Niger. Nana Aicha raises chickens to sell in Nigeria. She buys grain with the money she earns to feed her children. One day, traders from Nigeria brought bird flu virus to the border on their clothes or vehicles. People and chickens returned to Niger after the day of trading. They already had been infected with the disease.
Ms. Aicha says she lost everything because the chickens and ducks died or government workers killed them. "Today," she says, "I will feed my five children and myself with millet, rice, some milk, salt and peppers."
Indonesia has the most human deaths from the h-five-n-one virus. Eighty-one people had been infected with bird flu by the end of January. More than sixty of them died. That is more than in any other country. A twenty-six year old woman from West Java was the most recent victim. Indonesian officials said she had been involved in killing sick chickens.
Countries in Africa are using many ways to inform people about bird flu and stop its spread. Nigeria continues to give children medicine to protect against the disease polio. When health care workers visit homes, they are also talking about bird flu. Benin plans to spend more than five million dollars to pay chicken farmers if their chickens are killed because of bird flu.
Angola, Congo, Kenya and other countries have banned the import of live birds and eggs from areas infected with bird flu. In Ivory Coast, the government has a program to clean vehicles and airplanes that travel through infected areas. Mali has programs to study the large numbers of wild birds that fly along the Niger and Senegal Rivers. In Togo, groups are investigating deaths of farm birds that cannot be easily explained.
By the end of January, eleven people had died of bird flu in Egypt. Infected birds have been found in twenty-three of the country's twenty-six governates. A fifteen-year old girl and two members of her family died in December two thousand six. They all lived in the same house where birds were being raised. All three people who died had been cleaning and killing infected ducks.
Most of the people who died in Egypt were raising birds in their homes, not on large farms. Almost thirty-percent of the population there raises birds near their homes. Farm birds bring in thirteen-percent of their earnings. Up to thirty million farm birds all over Egypt have been killed. That represents a loss of one billion dollars to the chicken industry.
The Egyptian government is training health care workers and others to help stop the spread of bird flu. The government operates centers for people to call with questions about bird flu. More than one hundred thirty thousand calls were received in the first week after the disease was first reported in Egypt.
Local governments and international organizations are working hard to answer questions about bird flu and stop its spread. We will hear more about these efforts next month in the second part of this series.
This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Karen Leggett. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week at this time for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.