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Avian influenza in Africa: statement by the Director-General of WHO

9 February 2006

The confirmation of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry in Africa is a cause for great concern and demands immediate action. This is the first reported incidence of this highly pathogenic virus on the continent, where people are already enduring the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other serious infectious diseases. The H5N1 virus now confirmed in Nigeria poses a risk to human health and livelihood.

The single most important public health priority at this stage is to warn people about the dangers of close contact with sick or dead birds infected with H5N1. The vast majority of all human cases and deaths from H5N1 have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults.

Experience in Asian countries and most recently in Turkey underscores the fact that immediate, clear public information is critical to help protect human health. Slaughtering, defeathering or butchering infected, sick or dead birds can put people at risk. The home slaughter and consumption of birds which appear to be sick is high-risk behaviour. Ideally, people culling and disposing of birds should have protective equipment.

WHO is offering support to the Government of Nigeria's national public information campaign. This campaign may include delivery of messages to communities during the nationwide house-to-house polio immunization campaign beginning on Saturday. The polio eradication infrastructure in Nigeria is also being mobilized to support other essential surveillance and protective measures, such as monitoring for human cases, support for "early warning systems", and logistic support for containment, treatment, and laboratory functions.

This latest outbreak confirms that no country is immune to H5N1. Every country is at risk. Every country must prepare. There is a risk that outbreaks of H5N1 infection in birds could spread within Nigeria and into neighbouring countries. Nigeria is one of several African countries located on the Black Sea-Mediterranean flyway used by migratory birds. Human and animal health services must be on high alert, sharing information and quickly reporting any signs of disease in birds or humans that could be due to H5N1 avian influenza.

African health systems are already struggling to cope with children and adults suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, respiratory infections and other infectious conditions. Human cases of H5N1 may be difficult to distinguish from other illnesses. We simply do not know what the impact of exposure to avian influenza will be on the many people who may be already immunocompromised and in a fragile state of health. Health workers must be fully alert and samples must be taken and sent to laboratories. When human cases of H5N1 are identified, coordinated human and animal health investigations will be essential.

If the H5N1 virus changes to allow it to pass easily from person to person, and it goes unchecked, this could trigger an influenza pandemic. H5N1 is spreading rapidly across the world. All countries must take measures to protect human health against avian flu, and prepare for a pandemic.

There is no time to waste. We are ready to help all African countries take measures to reduce the risks of H5N1.

For more information contact:

Maria Cheng
Communications Officer - WHO
Telephone: +41 22 791 3982
Mobile phone: +41 79 500 6576

Christine McNab
Communications Officer - WHO
Telephone: +41 22 791 4688
Mobile phone: +41 79 254 6815