THE avian influenza (bird flu) virus is devastating bird populations around the globe. Its arrival into Africa Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia is particularly alarming. But if the virus acquires the ability to jump easily between humans it could unleash a pandemic, killing millions of people within mon
and Gerald Tenywa
THE avian influenza (bird flu) virus is devastating bird populations around the globe. Its arrival into Africa Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia is particularly alarming. But if the virus acquires the ability to jump easily between humans it could unleash a pandemic, killing millions of people within months.
The lethal H5N1 virus strain, which originated in southeast Asia in 2003, has spread to the Middle East, Europe, India and Africa, has infected 174 people since late 2003, mainly through contact with birds. At least 94 of those patients have died and more than 200 million fowl worldwide have been culled or died as the virus spreads.
But scientists believe there have been a few cases of human-to-human transmission.
They agree a human pandemic would be particularly catastrophic in developing countries like Uganda where poor living conditions, medical, veterinary and laboratory services, lack of health education, porous borders and high mortality rates from other diseases are a common fact of life.
So, is Uganda at risk of an outbreak?
â€œVery,â€ says Dr. Chris Rutebarika, the assistant commissioner for disease control in the ministry of agriculture.
â€œAvian influenza is a recognised trans-boundary disease. Being in the Western Rift Valley, which is a migratory flyway, is a definite risk.
â€œThus, Uganda is susceptible to the outbreak as it hosts a big population of migratory birds responsible for spreading the deadly flu during migration periods,â€ Rutebarika told members of the Poultry Association of Uganda in Kampala recently.
As of March 6, no presence of bird flu has been confirmed in Uganda.
The director general for health services at the ministry of health and co-chairman for the National Task Force on bird flu, Dr. Sam Okware, dismissed media reports that thousands of chickens were dying of avian influenza.
On Sunday, The Monitor reported that thousands of birds had died in poultry farms in several districts in central and eastern Uganda, with health and veterinary authorities fearing that it could be bird flu.
â€œWhere are these thousand birds? There should be no panic. All the nine samples collected in three months from Kampala and Entebbe areas around Lake Victoria and sent to the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) in Nairobi for testing, were negative. Ugandan chicken are therefore free of bird flu.â€
In poultry, H5N1 kills 50 to 100% within hours. The incubation period is usually three to seven days, depending on the virus type, the dose of virus, the species and age of the bird.
â€œThe wild birds carry the viruses inside their intestines and rarely get sick or show signs. But present signs similar to those of new castle disease,â€ he adds.
While it is not clear what the exact effects of bird flu virus on humans are, contact with the virus is capable of causing disease in humans.
Nicholas Kauta, the commissioner for animal health and entomology in the agriculture ministry, says all human cases have coincided with H5N1 outbreaks in poultry. He says the risk of catching the virus is greatest during the slaughtering and preparation of infected birds. However, he says it is safe to eat properly cooked poultry.
In humans, signs of bird flu resemble those of common flues. They include muscle aches, fever, coughing, sore throat and breathing problems. Others are diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal or chest pain and bleeding from the nose and gums. In worst cases that cause deaths, the person infected will develop acute respiratory, pneumonia and multiple organ failure.
Although no cases of epidemic have been reported in Uganda, poultry farmers are being warned to lock up their birds in the event of an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. But farmers believe such a precaution poses more of a challenge than a solution for the poultry industry, which is dominantly â€˜free range systemâ€™.
Charles Obonyo, a poultry farmer in Tororo says, â€œWhile the measure is effective, it only works for developed countries where the poultry management system is highly organised.â€
The Government has undertaken several preparatory steps to counter the virus, should it strike. A multi-sectoral Task Force has been constituted comprising ministries of health, agriculture, and tourism and trade, Uganda Wildlife Authority, poultry associations and development partners to prepare and set up an emergency response mechanism.
Government is also to embark on sensitise campains about the flu. The move is to complement the partial ban on all poultry imports. Dr Kauta says if the disease is cited in Uganda, the preferred measure would be to kill all suspected birds and compensate the owners.
In Uganda, highly susceptible backyard poultry, abject poverty and impoverished health services already struggling with the burden of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, mean a new human virus could easily spread undetected, rendering vaccines and anti-virals useless.
Currently, the only cure for bird flu is a vaccine â€” TamiFlu and Relenza. However, both vaccines are not available in Uganda yet.
Chemotherapy used to treat a rare immune disorder may also help people infected with the H5N1 virus. But as it is in most African countries, Ugandaâ€™s households share accommodation with chicken. Dr. Miriam Munyunja, a WHO health expert says in the event of an outbreak, the situation could get out of control.
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