Fears are growing that without timely intervention to stem outbreaks of highly virulent H5N1 avian influenza virus across West Africa, further spread across the region and beyond is inevitable, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned. 

To this end, it is calling for US$20 million for prevention and response activities. 

The call comes in response to outbreaks of the virus in poultry farms, markets and family holdings in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Disease re-emergence

While the first incursion of H5N1 in West Africa occurred in 2006 it was eliminated in 2008. In late 2014, however, the virus was re-introduced in Nigeria, where it spread rapidly over the following months. To date, more than 1.6 million birds have been culled or have died of the virus. 

“Urgent action is needed to strengthen veterinary investigation and reporting systems in the region and tackle the disease at the root, before there is a spillover to humans,” said Juan Lubroth, chief of FAO’s Animal Health Service Division. 

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The FAO’s appeal for US$20 million for prevention and response foresees bolstering weak veterinary systems, improving the capabilities of local laboratories and putting FAO specialists on the ground in affected and at-risk countries. 

Lack of proper controls

Poultry production has grown steadily in West Africa over the last decade with some countries, such as Cote d’Ivoire, seeing production increase by 60 percent since 2006. 

However, regulatory systems have not grown to deal effectively with this increase in production, and there is an acute need to make the market chains safer – from production to transporter to seller. At a regional level, these value chains can be across borders and so require stronger customs controls and greater compliance with product safety norms. 

“We’re looking at a disease – H5N1 – that has already spread to five countries in six months. We have to make a concerted effort to stop it in its tracks and we have to do it now,” said Lubroth.