No one really knows the extent to which H5N1 HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) is embedded in West African poultry. The disease first appeared in Nigeria in January 2006 and spread largely unhindered across this massive land area infecting at least two thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. Subsequent outbreaks occurred rapidly thereafter in neighbouring Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire. Over one year later starting in May 2007 there were outbreaks in Ghana, Togo, and Benin. By end 2007 there had been outbreaks in eight contiguous West African countries. 

The only country presenting solid evidence of stamping out the disease was Ghana. In all other countries, news about the H5N1 outbreaks simply vanished from the radar screen as though the virus had been stamped out in a couple of weeks or simply disappeared. Experience of H5N1 in Asia shows this is not credible or possible, especially when countries concerned are among the poorest in the world and virtually without veterinary infrastructure. Nigeria, where the disease was clearly most prevalent, just stopped reporting on the disease. The last official Nigerian outbreak reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) during 2006 was on March 29. Just one was reported in October 2007 although there had been a fatal human case in Lagos in January 2007.

More outbreaks go unreported 

Since June 2008, there has been another cluster of outbreaks in poultry affecting Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. Once again, the initial information has mostly been followed by a disturbing void. There were four outbreaks in Nigeria in four different states, two of which were in live bird markets. Since the initial reports, including identification of a H5N1 strain hitherto unrecorded in West Africa, information has dried up. According to Nigerian Government reports sent to OIE, the outbreak at the market in Kebbi State was identified on June 27, 2008, and concluded on the same day. That at Gombi took a bit longer to solve, starting on July 19, 2008, and cleared up within four days. No birds at either market were culled. 

Benin announced its outbreak as H5 and said it would clarify full subtype as soon as possible. The Benin outbreak actually started on July 28, 2008, but was not reported until August 28, 2008. There was still no official clarification of full subtype by Oct. 1, 2008.   

Togo tries to stop virus from spreading 

Only in tiny Togo does there appear to be any concerted attempt to stop the virus spreading. But as reports indicate, the authorities clearly have their backs against the wall due to sheer magnitude of dealing with a fast moving virus like H5N1 HPAI, and made worse by lack of infrastructure and finance to deal with the problem.

Togo’s livestock director Komla Batawui told IRIN that around 17,000 birds have died or been culled since the outbreak of H5N1 began on Sept. 9, 2008, at three poultry farms in Agbata, located 10km east of Lome. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations adviser to the Togolese government, Jacques Conforti, says the risk has been contained. "We focused on free-range poultry, and did not cull poultry in coops in the areas surrounding Agbata. This [the culling] should reduce the risk of the virus spreading to zero." Conforti says the disinfection has moved along quickly in the past three weeks. "We do not want to lose any time. We try to disinfect a zone in less than 24 hours before moving to the next at-risk area." He says officials meet with farmers who point out any sick birds, cull the birds, and pay the farmers for the value of the bird, eggs, or bird feed that is destroyed.


Problems with a partial culling policy 

Laudable though these efforts are, this report shows clearly why the virus continues to spread.  If there is H5N1 in an area or district then all poultry should be culled whether or not they are in coops. Apart from anything else, owners are learning from others that the policy is only to cull free range birds and those earmarked as sick may not inform the culling teams or simply put their free range birds into coops.

There could be good reasons for adopting such a partial culling policy including lack of manpower, insufficient funds for compensation, and not wanting to deprive already poor people of perhaps their only livelihood and source of animal protein. Be that as it may, the authorities are just kidding themselves and the Togolese if they think a highly selective partial cull will reduce risk of the virus spreading to zero.

Poultry farmers receive compensation for culls 

Officials have already paid close to US$9,000 to farmers to compensate them for their losses since the outbreak, says IRIN.  Togo's Minister of Agriculture, Kossi Messan Ewovor said the compensation helps the farmers step forward with their suspicions about sick birds that may carry the deadly H5N1 virus. "This is to assure the poultry farmers they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain in culling sick birds because they help keep their regions and the entire country safe."

Alphonse Tognizoun, a poultry farmer in Agbata, told IRIN how he had lost more than 1,000 birds as well as some poultry feed. "I got $4.00 per bird and half the value of the food for my birds that was also destroyed, or about $0.33 per kilo. I didn't lose eggs, but others who did were paid $0.06 per egg."  Following Togo’s first outbreak of the virus in August 2007, the World Bank had pushed for farmer payments to encourage quick and accurate reporting. But it also cautioned officials about the difficulty of creating a fair and transparent payment programme to prevent fraudulent poultry claims.

Payment schemes can be difficult to carry out

Olga Jonas, the World Bank adviser who coordinates donor avian flu funding, had said payment schemes can be difficult to carry out because it can be hard to prove ownership for small producers in remote areas who live in the bush, far from their chicken coops.  But Togo's livestock director, Batawui, said there was no room for bird fraud, "If we are not the ones who cull and incinerate the birds ourselves, the farmers must bring us their dead poultry. We register it and give them a receipt with their payment. No cheaters this way." Non-government organisations have always maintained that fair compensation is the cornerstone of an effective culling programme, especially in poor communities, although the $9,000 reported to have been paid so far does not appear to match up with 17,000 dead birds at $4.00 per bird.

Following this outbreak of H5N1 Togolese officials had requested international donor assistance. IRIN says US$500,000 requested has already arrived from the European Union, African Union, African Development Bank, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and World Bank. Half of this money will go toward interventions at the farm-level, such as disinfecting farms, culling, and incinerating birds, while the other half is to be spent on training and equipment to help officials respond to and contain the spread.