Uganda has held its breath on bird flu since April 2006 when H5N1 exploded into Egypt’s Nile Valley decimating commercial poultry and fatally infecting people.
Later outbreaks in Khartoum and Gezira states of Sudan confirmed H5N1 moving along the Nile Valley making Uganda next in line and even more nervous. Outbreaks re-surfaced in Sudan in September 2006 at Juba just 110 km from the Ugandan border, but Uganda stayed H5N1-free. Uganda has not reported a single case of H5N1 but it is a matter of not if, but when. This was the view of assembled experts from the Ugandan AI task force, WHO, FAO and EU at a recent three-day international media workshop organised by the Uganda Media for Health (UM4H) in Kampala.
Two routes for H5N1 into Uganda are particularly worrying: one is by migratory birds and the other via poultry traders selling meat and eggs in Sudan and returning to Uganda with contaminated vehicles, equipment and materials.
Main thrust of the Black Sea Migratory Flyway seems to pass north of Uganda, but focus on wild waterfowl in the migratory population paints a completely different picture – especially for some species of dabbling duck that reach deep into Uganda. Terrain in western Rift Valley with large expanses of water, wetlands and swamps could not be more inviting for these wild ancestors of domestic ducks.
During 2006, the Uganda Wildlife Authority monitored bird movements from the north and west and set up eight special sampling sites. August 2006 samples from various parts of the country and tested at Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe were negative for H5N1. Ugandan government took no chances and set up rapid response teams in ‘high risk’ areas alongside lakes, wetlands and other potential wild waterfowl sanctuaries. By October, wildlife officials reported at least six species of migratory birds at Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda.
Ugandan businessmen flock to southern Sudan and especially the regional capital of Juba where poultry traders can sell their products at higher prices than in Uganda. The big fear is that infection will be brought back to Uganda on vehicles or poultry equipment like egg trays. Spread of H5N1 from Laos into Thailand in South-east Asia was traced to contaminated egg trays.
A multi-disciplinary task force is now in place, with community based teams for surveillance and reporting and laboratories for testing samples. If experience elsewhere in Africa is anything to go by compensation for farmers, poultry owners and traders affected by H5N1 will be a key decider in success or failure. The Ugandan government says it will compensate farmers should it be necessary to kill stock but has not yet negotiated a price.