Bird Flu's Spread to Africa Could Be Imminent, UN Warns

October 27, 2005

Africa may soon become a new front in the struggle against a dangerous strain of avian influenza.

In recent weeks the viral strain, called H5N1, has spread to Europe and Turkey from Southeast Asia, where it festered for several years.

Now flocks of birds that could carry the microbe are migrating from their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia to winter havens in Africa.

Last Wednesday the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization said that it anticipates the imminent arrival of the deadly virus in Africa.

Since 2003 the H5N1 virus has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia and has devastated poultry farms there. Scientists and public health officials warn that the pathogen could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, killing millions worldwide.

"Migratory ducks and shorebirds are the ones most likely to have the virus, as far as we know," said conservation biologist Rob Fergus of the National Audubon Society.

The virus has also killed several kinds of geese, and it may infect sandpipers, cranes, herons, ibises, egrets, and other species, said Fergus, who is based in Ivyland, Pennsylvania.

"Many of those [species] nest in Russia and are migrating to Africa for the winter," he said. "They're arriving there now."

Once in Africa, Fergus said, bird flu "could be transmitted to poultry, to other birds. It could be a real threat to many endangered bird species."

Lost Lives, Lost Livelihoods

The H5N1 virus has damaged economies as well as bird and human populations. In China and Southeast Asia, government officials have had millions of farmed poultry exterminated in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.

The financial impact is likely to be smaller in Africa than it has been in Asia, said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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